Actions

Work Header

The Deca (Series Two)

Chapter Text

The halls were, as per usual, obsessively clean when Theta arrived.

Even though the students of the Academy were meant to be on break, the staff went nowhere, and many students stuck around through the holiday. Theta wasn’t entirely sure which of his friends fell into that category—Ushas had gone over it at the last meeting before their departure but he failed to listen, as his mind was already on the holiday—but it didn’t take more than two seconds of looking at Mortimus to realize that he was one of them.

Theta only knocked on his door because no one else had answered, and he was hoping that Magnus would be around. Luckily for Mortimus, he wasn’t, because the room was in a complete state of dishevelment. Not just Mortimus’s side of the room either; no, his horrible mess had spread onto both sides of the room and was taking over the entirety of the floor.

Mortimus himself resembled the area around him, his deep brown eyes wide and bloodshot when he opened the door. His greasy hair was a tangled mess as well, and somewhat longer than Theta remembered it. Instead of lacking style, it was parted down the middle, and flopped slightly over the sides of his ears. It had grown longer in the back as well, contradicting Mortimus’s previous declaration that he couldn’t stand things touching his neck.

“Uh, Mort?” The concern was not light in Theta’s tone. “Are you, like, high or something?”

Mortimus shook his head and grabbed onto Theta’s forearm before pulling him into the room. He slammed the door shut, glanced out of the peephole, then took a step back and breathed a sigh of relief. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It has been a wild week.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” He gestured around the room. “Are you planning on cleaning this up? Because Magnus is due to be back any minute now and if you don’t get that stuff off of his floor, he’ll—”

“Blah, blah, blah. You think I don’t know? I can’t clean it up, Theta. He’ll fire me if I clean it up.”

Theta made a face. “Who’ll fire you?”

“Jeff.” He sounded so sincere in his words that it was impossible to decipher whether he was pulling a prank.

“Who the hell is Jeff?”

Mortimus stared at him for a second, then turned around and paced over to his bed. Garbage cracked beneath his feet, but he paid no attention to it. He grabbed a stuffed animal off his bed, then turned around and showed it to Theta, a deadly serious look on his face.

“This is Jeff,” he answered.

Theta stared at the toy for several seconds. From his perspective, he was staring at an absolutely harmless toy.

“That’s a stuffed yaddlefish,” Theta said slowly.

“Well, fuck you too. This is not a stuffed animal, Thete. This is Jeff. Jeff is my supervisor. Don’t be rude to Jeff.”

“Why not?”

“Didn’t you hear me before?” Mortimus snapped. “He’ll fire me, you dumbass.”

The conversation went from weird to full-blown insane in a matter of minutes. Theta was almost concerned about Mortimus and feared that he may have been right in asking about drugs. Something about him was just severely off from normal, and he seemed to be completely unaware of his bizarre behavior. That was why, no matter how odd it was, Theta was determined to help Mortimus.

It wouldn’t be until several hours later when he would come to regret his decision.

//

“This is my heart. My soul. My life force. It is everything good and pure in the world, distilled into a cup destined to never be as incredible as the liquid inside of it. It—”

“—kinda tastes like sludge,” Rallon finished. He put the coffee cup down onto the table and made a face.

Rallon wasn’t entirely sure how or why they had started talking about coffee, but ever since he walked into his dorm that morning, he couldn’t get the smell to go away. Every time it started to disperse, Vansell brewed up a fresh cup, and the room filled with the scent all over again. It wasn’t too bothersome, as it smelled all right, but it tasted downright terrible, as he had learned after being force-fed a mug full of it.

“Yes, but it’s caffeinated sludge.” Unlike his roommate, Vansell pulled his mug closer and took another sip of the steaming hot drink. “I’m almost ashamed to live in the same room as someone who doesn’t appreciate this holy water.”

“Did you just literally call coffee ‘holy water’?” If it was possible, the expression on his face got even stranger.

“Obviously. There is no better drink on this planet, Rallon, and it pains me that you cannot see that. How do you even survive without the treasure that is caffeine?”

“I drink soda.”

Vansell looked appalled. “You would rather drink a fizzy bottle of piss than a freshly brewed cup of coffee?”

“To be fair, I usually drink it out of cans.”

Rallon was more than a little bit relieved that someone knocked on the door before Vansell had a chance to respond. For some reason, he seemed utterly obsessed with the stupid drink, and he couldn’t just accept the fact that they had differing opinions on the sludge.

He leapt out of his seat to open the door and broke into a huge grin when he opened it to find Millennia standing on the other side. She reached up and hugged him before he had a chance to do so first, and they held onto each other tightly for a few seconds before she pulled away.

“Hi!” she beamed. She opened her mouth to say something else, then stopped and furrowed her brow. She tilted her nose upward and sniffed a few times before turning back to Rallon. “What’s that smell?”

“That would be the sweet scent of holy water, according to Vansell.” Rallon turned around and gave him a look. “Otherwise known as: he’s had seven cups of coffee since I got back this morning.”

Millennia frowned. “Ever since I’ve known you,” she said, turning to face to Vansell, “you’ve liked coffee. But you’ve never had that much of it before. I don’t think that’s healthy.”

“I don’t really care.”

“Well, I do.” She took a step into the room. “I don’t know what you did over break, but I’m worried you may have come to rely on coffee a bit too much. Why don’t you stop drinking it for a day? Just to see what your life would be like without it?”

“That is a terrible idea.” Vansell rolled his eyes. “But since I haven’t anything better to do, I’ll stop for the day. Just to humor you. Coffee comes back tomorrow, though.”

“Unless you come to realize that you can function without it.”

“That’s never going to happen, Mil, but good try.”

Rallon stepped between their staring contest and went over to grab the coffee mugs. He took them into the sink and dumped them out, then started scrubbing to get rid of the coffee smell that had plagued their room for the last… however long they had been there.

//

Koschei was both pleased and not pleased to be back at the Academy. He was quite happy to see his friends again, but at the same time, he dreaded returning to his classes. If he didn’t know any better, he might have said that his teachers were out to get him, not to mention the many peers that were jealous of him (specifically his excellent dorm room, but he neglected to share that piece of information). In a similar situation of being both pleased and unamused, the first person he saw upon walking up the stairs into the Academy was none other than Ushas.

She sighed when he opened the door for her. “Hello, Koschei,” she said, not bothering to look at him as she strode past.

“Hey there.” Koschei followed her in and let the door close behind him. “It’s good to see you. I barely survived without your optimism this past week.”

“And yet I was perfectly fine without your sarcasm.” They walked through the dark red halls for around a minute before Ushas looked over and saw the thoughtful expression on Koschei’s face. “What? What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, you know. Stuff. Mostly how I’m going to take over the world.”

Ushas rolled her eyes and pushed a lock of long brown hair out of her face. “You are going to be the absolute death of me, Koschei.”

“I’ll swear on that.”

Koschei opened his mouth to continue but cut himself off when he spotted Millennia running down the hall towards them. She pulled Ushas into a hug and started babbling about all the things she did over break, and how much she missed her roommate, which quickly bored Koschei. Ushas looked more than ready to escape from the embrace, so he decided to shoot her a joking glance before continuing off down the hallway. She glared back at him.

While he walked down the hallway, Koschei whipped out his phone and sent a quick message to Theta, to ask whether he was back or not, but he failed to respond. For a split second, he considered going to look for him, but got sidetracked when he saw Epsilon slip on a fruit peel and fall flat on his back. He snorted, and watched as Epsilon stood up, shouting that the prank stopped being funny the first time he came back from break.

Even though he hated his classes, Koschei had to admit that it felt pretty good to be back.

//

“Hey.”

Jelpax looked up when he heard the door open. He smiled at Drax, who failed return the expression. Instead, he waved lamely, then dragged a hand through his hair and dropped his suitcase by the door. He turned to walk over to his side of the room, but Jelpax stopped him. “Why are you acting weird?”

Drax turned around, his brow furrowed. “I’m not acting weird,” he said. “All I did was walk into the room. How is that acting weird?”

“You didn’t say anything, you didn’t smile when you saw me, and you didn’t try to give me a hug.”

“Yeah, so?” He shrugged and walked over to his closet. He reached in to find a black sweatshirt and pulled it over his head, further messing up his hair in the process. “Maybe I’ve just decided to actually respect your personal space for once. I know that you don’t like hugs, Pax, and I’ve decided to stop being a dick about it.”

“You’ve never been a dick about anything.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m obviously an asshole. Just not to you.”

“I don’t like how seriously you said that.” Jelpax dropped his book onto the blanket beside him and turned to face Drax, who was still turned away from him by his closet. He appeared to be searching for something, but it was unclear what. “Drax, seriously. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Have you seen my glasses? I can’t fucking see.”

“Stop looking for a second and come over here.” There was the longest hesitation before Drax walked over and stopped in front of his bed. “Why are you acting like this?”

Again, he didn’t respond right away, and stood there in silence. He blinked several times before he finally spoke, at which point Jelpax knew for sure that something was wrong. Blinking was both an indication of tears, and one of Drax’s most notable nervous habits.

He almost wanted to push his friend for a faster answer but knew that Drax would resort to a sarcastic comeback and refuse to give a serious answer if he rushed him. So instead, he waited. It wasn’t worth it.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

With that one sentence, he bit his lip and turned away to resume looking for whatever he wanted. Jelpax nearly called after him to get him to talk again but stopped when his phone chimed on the table beside him. He reached over to grab it and frowned when he read the message on the screen.

MAGNUS: Who are the bitches who were messing with your bf?

For once, he didn’t even feel the need to comment on Magnus’s subtle insult/joke/thing-he-would-never-understand. Instead, he wanted to know the same thing that Magnus asked him. What was he even talking about? He opened his mouth to say something to Drax, but stopped himself, knowing that his friend was unlikely to answer any questions, especially coming from Magnus.

ME: What are you talking about?

He absolutely hated the fact that it took Magnus more than a minute to respond.

MAGNUS: Two dudes were poking fun at him when he got back this morning.

MAGNUS: Looked like one of them might have hit him? I only saw the tail end of it.

MAGNUS: I was going deck them, but they hauled ass when I started walking over.

Jelpax was both worried about and pleased by his clear concern for Drax’s wellbeing, and in any other situation, he might have smiled to himself. Despite the topic, it felt good to have a conversation with Magnus in which they actually agreed on something.

ME: I’ll talk to Drax.

ME: But seriously, don’t hold back if you see those blokes again. Your anger might actually be useful for once.

In response, all Magnus sent as a thumbs-up emoticon. Jelpax turned his screen off and tossed his phone onto the bed beside him, then shifted to see where Drax had gone, and froze when he realized that he wasn’t in sight. He stood up anyway, and quickly spotted his friend leaning against the side of his own bed on the other side of the room. Jelpax walked over and sat down beside him before he spoke.

“Are you okay?”

“I can’t find my glasses,” he mumbled. His knees were pulled up to his chest, his arms crossed atop them. “And I’m fucking farsighted so I can’t see what the fuck I’m looking at.”

“That’s not what this is about, is it?”

“Why do you know me so well?”

“Because Magnus messaged me and told me that he saw some blokes picking on you.” Jelpax sighed and gave him a look. “But also, because we’ve been friends forever and I’d be stupid to not recognize your behavioral patterns by now.”

He nodded. “I both hate you and appreciate you very much. It’s kinda stupid having a best friend, isn’t it?”

“If something can be stupid in a good way, then yeah. Yeah, it is.”

//

Jeff is not a yaddlefish, Thete,” Mortimus spat. “He is a person, and he doesn’t like you referring to him that way.”

Theta groaned. The funny situation had long since escalated into a disaster, and he was beginning to fear for his friend’s safety. Mortimus wasn’t just acting weird, like he usually did, but almost as if he had lost his mind completely. Drugs had been ruled out of the equation, after Theta looked up the symptoms and realized that Mortimus was both too aware and too far gone to be on any substance available on Gallifrey. But something, somehow, had still caused him to go mad.

“I don’t care, Mort,” Theta groaned. “You need to clean up this mess right now or Magnus is literally going to kill you. I’m not even joking. You know what he gets like when he’s angry.”

Mortimus shrugged. “It’s fine, he can’t kill me. Jeff won’t let him. Jeff prefers to be the only one in charge of my survival.”

“For the last time, Jeff isn’t real! He’s a stuffed yaddlefish! Where the hell did you even get a stuffed yaddlefish? Never mind. Just stop acting like this is all somehow going to be okay. Because it’s not. On any normal week, you might have gotten away with this, but not right after vacation. Magnus is going to want to come in here and sit down and relax and he can’t do that if your shit is all over his bed!”

“My—” He looked almost surprised when he turned and saw the piles of stuff on Magnus’s side of the room. “Huh. Who put that there?”

“You did, unless you’ve had a visitor over while I was gone, which I highly doubt. There is not one person in this Academy who would walk into someone else’s room and make a mess like this. It just wouldn’t happen.”

“No, yeah, I agree.” Mortimus rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly and took a look around the light orange room. “Maybe it was Lester?”

“Who’s Lester?”

He glanced around again, as if he were looking for something. “My coworker. He was here before, but— huh. I guess Jeff must have killed him.”

Theta swallowed hard. He had never been great with horror stories—he had been terrified for months after his mum told him about Grandfather Paradox—and even the imaginary idea that someone had died inside of Mortimus’s room was absolutely horrifying. He took a deep breath and reminded himself not to panic. It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.

“It is real.”

“Oh my—how did you know what I was thinking?!”

“I’m a Universal Psychology major. It’s my job to know what you’re thinking.” The manner in which he spoke felt more normal compared to usual, and Theta hoped that it meant he was starting to calm down. However, Mortimus’s next choice of words sincerely scared him. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”

“I don’t want to ask this,” Theta began, “but what kind of work is Jeff making you do?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but I think he’s trying to take over the world.”

Theta didn’t get a chance to respond before the door opened and Magnus walked in. It took about two seconds for his jaw to drop, and four seconds for him to rush at Mortimus with his fist; an enraged expression in his eyes.

//

“Hey, Vansell, you’re shaking.”

He whipped around to look at Koschei. “You think I don’t know that? I know that. I’m freaking out right now, mate. I haven’t had coffee in like an hour and I think I’m starting to slow down. Please, someone, tell Millennia to take back what she said.”

“Why do you want her to take back what she said?” asked Ushas. “Can’t you just stop with this challenge thing?”

“No, because that’s a forfeit. It doesn’t count if she retracts the challenge.”

After Ushas had managed to get Millennia to let go of her, her and Koschei resumed their walk down the hall. At some point along the way, they ran into Rallon and Vansell, who were going on a walk around the dorms to “clear their minds”, according to Rallon. Ushas was skeptical of what they meant, and asked questions until they told her what they were going on about, at which point she criticized the entire challenge. She wasn’t a fan of coffee, and wasn’t defending his decision, but failed to understand why exactly he was so reluctant to give up on the stupid thing.

“Who cares about a forfeit?” asked Ushas. “It’s not like it’s a real competition or anything. And Millennia is the one who started it, so you’re seriously unlikely to get any kind of backtalk if you decide to drop it. In fact, if you wanted to, you could just drink the coffee in a travel cup. She’d never know what you have. For all she knows, you’re having water. She’s very trustworthy, so you could tell her it’s anything. Warm milk, even.”

Vansell snorted. “Am I tricking her or coming out of the closet?”

“Are you insinuating that warm milk is homosexual?”

“Are you capable of using shorter words?” asked Koschei.

Ushas reached around and slapped him across the shoulder. “Anyway, do you guys know where the others are? I haven’t seen them around yet.”

“Theta’s not answering me, and I haven’t bothered to try to reach anyone else yet. It’s getting late now, though, so they’re probably all back. I just don’t know where they are.”

“You want to go look for them?” Rallon piped up.

He shook his head. “Nah. They’ll show up before tomorrow.” Koschei jokingly placed an arm around Ushas’s shoulders. “Plus, who needs them? I’ve got this beautiful ray of sunshine right here.”

“Why are you like this?” Ushas slithered out of his grasp and slapped him again. He made a fake sad face and retreated into his own personal bubble, while Vansell groaned beside them.

“Well, if you two are going to start arguing again, then I’m going to go ahead and scoot out of here. Rallon, come on,” he said. He stood up and gestured for his roommate to follow him. “I need some coffee and I need your stupid travel mug to hide it in. One of these days I really ought to get my own.”

“Yeah, you really, really ought to.” Rallon sighed and followed him as he took off down the hallway.

Once they were out of range, Koschei turned back to face Ushas. “You want another hug now?” he asked.

“You are literally intolerable.”

He smiled. “That’s why you love me.”

//

Theta was beginning to question whether or not he was going to make it out of Mortimus’s room. He’d doubted his survival from the moment Mortimus started acting so strange, and it only got worse when Magnus came into the room. His rage seemed almost worse than usual, which made Theta wonder if everyone else’s dominant personality traits had been amplified. Otherwise, Magnus hated messes—and Mortimus—far more than he knew. Luckily, Mortimus’s natural ability to talk people down came in handy, and he stopped Magnus before he got decked in the face.

“…no, I don’t want to hear your bullshit excuses about Jeff or whoever else, Mortimus.” Although he was good, Mortimus was no wizard, and Magnus’s temper continued to boil. “I want to know exactly what the fuck led you to destroying my room.”

“I can’t tell you if you don’t believe me.” He sighed and sat down on his bed, a pile of paper crunching beneath him when he did so. “It all started when I was cleaning out my closet, and underneath a pile of clothes and an undetermined substance, I found Jeff. I forgot that I even had him, honestly. It brought back old memories of fishing for yaddlefish with my dad. I used to love yaddlefish. Yaddlefish are wonderful. I always wanted a pet yaddlefish. Have you ever—”

“For the love of god, Mort, you need to stop talking.”

“Sorry. I just— I babble sometimes. I don’t know why. A nervous habit? I’m not really that nervous though. This is strange. Do you think this is strange? I’m confused. What’s going on?”

“Jesus Christ. Shut up!” Magnus slapped him over the head, and he winced and rubbed his jaw. Theta considered telling him off but thought better of the idea. “Listen to me for a second. I’m pretty sure I know why you’re acting so strange. That unknown substance on your dirty-ass pile of clothes was probably some kind of disgusting mold. If you ever paid attention in biology, you’d know that some of that stuff just goes straight into your brain. It’s worse than weed.”

“I kind of remember that,” said Theta. “I think that was the day I didn’t learn anything because Koschei was making jokes about getting high the whole hour. That was a brilliant class.”

Mortimus ignored him. “If you’re suggesting that I clean my entire room in an attempt to get rid of the mold or whatever you think is in there, you’ve lost your mind. After that horrible experience you forced me through the last time, I am never going to clean my room again. I might pick up something every now and then, but to stop and disinfect the entire dorm again? It’s not happening.”

“Why are you starting to make sense again?” Magnus narrowed his eyes and took a step closer to his roommate. “Not that I agree with you—you need to clean up my side of the room or I’ll kick your ass—but you’re not talking like you’ve literally lost your mind anymore. Did the smell finally get out of your head?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think so. I kind of just feel the same. I told you that I wasn’t high.”

“I’m still not buying it. Theta!”

Theta, who was halfway out the door, groaned and looked up when he turned around. “Yeah?”

“Take him to the infirmary,” he demanded. “I want to know that he’s definitely not on drugs or high on fungus before I deck him for lying to me.”

“Wait, no. I don’t want to go to the infirmary. Thete!”

Though he was not the least bit interested in going there either, Theta grabbed Mortimus by the upper arm and dragged him out of the room. He learned a long time ago not to disobey Magnus’s orders. Especially not when the punishment could be cleaning up his side of the room.

//

Jelpax had known Drax since their earliest days at primary school.

At first, they didn’t get along so well. They had some very obviously differing opinions, and vastly opposite upbringings, which prevented them from having civil discussions for the longest time. But as they grew, they got to know each other. They came to care about one another without even realizing it. Once, when they were around twenty years old, they got into a fight. As an apology, Jelpax gave Drax a stuffed version of his favorite animal—the striped pig bear.

For some odd reason, Drax still had that striped pig bear.

It was useful, to say the least. It took Jelpax a long time to figure out why Drax sometimes held onto it, but when he did, he understood. As long as he had known him, Drax had a problem with what he thought were nervous tics. For years he had been convinced that the uncomfortable tapping and rapid blinking were a sign of clinical anxiety, but he could never bring himself to talk to his friend about it. Jelpax told himself that he would do something if it ever got really bad, but for the most part, Drax seemed to have it under control.

Sometimes, when he was lying in bed, or working on his homework, Jelpax would catch him holding onto that striped pig bear. It took many sessions of subtle observation for him to realize that he did it as a substitute to his tics. There was always a pattern to what he would do to it; such as stroking its ears or dragging his nails along its soft tummy. It seemed almost comforting to him, and he worked far quieter and more attentively when he had it near him. That said, Jelpax had never been able to figure out the pattern of when he slept with it in his arms.

Regardless, Jelpax knew that something was wrong every time Drax held onto it.

He hadn’t wanted to leave earlier, especially since he had yet to get an answer from Drax about the people who had hurt him, but he had an appointment with his history professor that he couldn’t miss. He rushed through it, of course, wanting to get back to his friend as soon as possible, but it still took several minutes. When he got back, Drax had moved from his place on the floor and was lying on his bed with his striped pig bear in hand, holding it tight to his chest. He put it down when he heard Jelpax enter the room.

Drax rolled over onto his back and pushed himself up in his seat, then propped himself up against his pillows.

“Are you willing to talk now?” asked Jelpax. He made sure that his tone didn’t sound annoyed in the least when he spoke, so as not to hurt Drax’s feelings or annoy him further.

He shrugged. “Are you willing to sit far away from me? Because I can’t see up close for shit right now.”

“Do you seriously not know what you did with your glasses?”

“I don’t know. They’re here somewhere, because I didn’t take them to my dad’s house.” The fact that he said “dad’s” instead of “parents’” was slightly alarming to Jelpax, but he didn’t comment on it. “I wore my contacts all week, so I didn’t need them.”

“Why can’t you just wear your contacts now?” he asked.

Drax hesitated. “I actually did forget to pack those.”

“How?”

“I was kind of in a hurry to leave.”

It was one of the comments that Jelpax was desperate for him to elaborate on, but there was nothing he could do about it. Ever since he had known him, Drax had been reluctant to talk about his family, and still avoided as many questions as possible. It was only through offhand comments such as that that Jelpax knew anything about his family at all. He only wished he could get him to open up more.

Suddenly, something clicked in his mind. “The blokes who were messing with you earlier,” he began, “who were they?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Because they’re family, yeah?”

The air fell silent for the longest time before he spoke. “I really hate that you’re so perceptive,” he mumbled. Jelpax only shrugged in response. “They’re my cousins. Mum’s side. We don’t really get along so well. They— sorry. I’m— sorry.”

Drax stopped talking and blinked several times before he eventually resumed. Jelpax nearly asked if he was okay but felt that he already knew that answer and chose not to. Instead, he waited for Drax to go on, hoping he would elaborate more on the situation. He didn’t.

“Sorry, I’m fucking dizzy as shit. I can’t— my eyes won’t fucking focus.”

Before Jelpax could come up with a response that was both comforting and kept them focused on the original topic, someone knocked on their door. He stood up to answer it and froze when he saw Magnus on the other side of the door. Despite his earlier messages, Jelpax highly doubted that he was coming over to be friendly, and he wasn’t in the mood to argue. However, Magnus didn’t appear to be angry—at least, not at Jelpax—and the box in his hands made it clear that he was there for other reasons.

“Hey,” he said. “Apparently Mortimus is a kleptomaniac now, so I’m trying to return all of the shit that he stole.” He reached into the box and pulled out two notebooks, three random objects, and a glasses case. He held them out to Jelpax, who took them awkwardly.

“Thanks?” He was grateful for the return of Drax’s glasses, but unsure of how to react to the news that Mortimus had stolen them. “I suppose we’ll be locking our door from now on.”

Magnus made a face. “Yeah and watch your bags too. One of those is Drax’s lock picking kit.” He nodded towards the pile of stuff he gave to Jelpax. “Anyway, I’ll be going now. I’ve still got a lot of other things to return. Also, expect another visit, because this is just the stuff I found while shoving his shit off of my bed. We still have his side to go through.”

Jelpax didn’t say anything as he watched him go. He closed the door, then turned back around to Drax, who hadn’t moved an inch. He tapped his left pointer and middle fingers against his leg anxiously, his deep green eyes downcast. Jelpax walked back over to his bed and handed him the glasses case, to which Drax looked up and smiled.

“It’s a miracle,” he mumbled. He put his glasses on quickly, then blinked several times after they were on. “Holy shit! I can see again!”

“Finally.” Jelpax sighed and sat down on his own bed. “Now, before I start pestering you again, we need to talk about the fact that you never lock our door.”

//

Vansell felt better after he had his coffee.

He had, technically, broken the terms of his challenge with Millennia, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like she was ever going to find out about it. Rallon’s travel mug was the perfect disguise for his “caffeinated sludge” and managed to keep him connected to his drink for a total of ten minutes by then. Those ten minutes were his favorite part of the entire day. Drinking coffee was good but drinking coffee after not having it for several hours was pure bliss in a cup.

“You know, Ushas,” he began, “I hate to admit that you were right, but this was a brilliant idea. I have my coffee, nobody knows that I have my coffee, I win the challenge and give up nothing. Brilliant.”

She put on a smug smile. “I won’t say that I love to be praised, but it honestly feels really good for someone to finally acknowledge my sheer genius.”

“Yeah, right.” Koschei laughed heartily and wiped at his eyes. “Oh, that was a good one, Ushas. You really had me going there for a second.”

“I wasn’t joking.”

He made a face. “You were though. Everyone knows that you love to be praised. And maybe we all ignore you, but our professors are constantly praising you for your supposed geniusness.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not a word,” said Vansell. He shifted forward in his seat at the lunch table and grabbed his coffee again. He took a long, drawn-out sip, then breathed out a sigh of relief. “Ah, that’s delicious.”

“Better not be coffee in there.”

Vansell jumped when he heard Millennia speak up from behind him. She gave him a friendly smile as she set her own, nearly identical travel cup down on the table, a gesture which he failed to return. Luckily, he was very good at lying and didn’t worry too much about her finding out his secret. He pushed his cup away a bit, as if to prove he wasn’t afraid of her smelling it.

“Nope,” he said, a very fake grin on his face. “Absolutely not. This is just some warm milk. Mm.”

“So, you’re all right with the coming-out-of-the-closet drink now?” asked Ushas.

He rolled his eyes. “It’s not like it’s going to turn me gay.”

Millennia seemed to know that something was up based on the way they were staring at each other, but Koschei didn’t tell either of them about that. In fact, he thought that it would be rather funny if they got busted and decided to keep it all to himself. The universe ended up working in his favor, and soon gave him the perfect fuel for laughter.

“Oh, you know what?” said Millennia, sighing. “I just realized that I forgot I was supposed to meet up with Antoie to talk about my column today. I guess I’ll see you guys later?”

“Yeah, all right. Bye.”

Koschei nearly didn’t say anything to Vansell when Millennia grabbed the wrong travel cup, but he felt like such a villain keeping it to himself that he cracked. But not until Millennia was well on her way out of the dining hall, of course; he was still a passionate fan of good pranks.

“Hey, Vansell?” He smirked when Vansell looked over him with an obviously annoyed face and raised an eyebrow in question. “Never mind, I won’t tell you if you don’t want to know. But I was just going to say that Millennia picked up the wrong mug. She’s carrying your coffee instead of her tea, and she’s probably about to drink it and find out that you cheated her challenge. But hey, you go back to hating everything that I say. It’s no problem.”

Vansell’s eyes went so wide that Koschei feared they might pop out of his head. He didn’t waste time using his words before he leapt out of his seat and hauled ass down out of the dining hall, not bothering to pay attention to the people around him as he shoved them aside. Several of his peers shouted at him when he ran into them, but he just kept on going. He would rather have been known as a loser than found out to be a cheater. There was nothing less noble than being a cheater.

“Millennia!” he shouted. It was lucky he knew where the paper set up camp, or he wouldn’t have known where to find her. “Millennia!”

To his complete and utter disappointment, Millennia was nowhere to be found when he arrived outside the door to the Prydonian Paper headquarters. He swallowed hard and turned away from the door, trying to figure out what he should do next. It was almost guaranteed at that point that he wasn’t going to find her before she took a sip of her tea—or rather, his coffee—and all he could think about was how much he hoped that she wasn’t particularly thirsty that day. Then again, she must have been, after how quickly she managed to get away from him.

As a last resort, Vansell reached into his pocket to grab his phone so that he could send her a message to alert her of the situation. Theoretically that’s what he should have done first, but he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Somehow. Unfortunately for him, his sudden, genius idea was actually a complete failure. When he had sat down to hang out with his friends, he forgot that he had taken his phone out of his pocket and set it on the table. They were probably all laughing at him for his mistake at that point, something that he decided to worry about later.

“Millennia!” he cried again. He didn’t know where else to go. Where else to look. He ran down the hall searching for her, hoping and praying that he could catch her before it was too late. “Millennia!”

The narrator, who has yet to input their opinions, would like to make note of the fact that he failed to consider going back for his phone. That probably would have saved him a lot of time. Just saying.

//

Theta felt compelled to stay with Mortimus until the nurse was finished with him, even though he had no true obligation to do so. Sometimes he hated how much he cared about his friends. It really got in the way of him being selfish.

Although he had been unconvinced before, Theta slowly came to realize that Mortimus’s joke was no joke at all. He knew that Mortimus wasn’t stupid enough to try and drag the staff into his crazy pranks, and yet he continued going on about his delusions while the nurse checked him out for kind of drugw, poison, or any other kind of substance that may have found its way into his system.

“I need to get back to my room,” said Mortimus. He tried to pull away from the nurse, but she pushed him back onto the light blue bed. “Please. Jeff is going to fire me if I don’t get back. Or worse. You don’t know what he’s capable of. You don’t know what he’s planning.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, kid.” The nurse sounded exhausted, and probably thought that he was pulling a prank. Everyone at the Academy knew that the Deca was renowned for their disastrous plans. “There is no one on Gallifrey named ‘Jeff’. And if there is, I’d like to meet their poor parents.”

“I’m not joking right now, ma’am, and Jeff isn’t from Gallifrey. Please don’t treat me like a child just because I look like one. I’m currently embroiled in a scheme that’s bigger than anything you know. You don’t understand because you don’t know who Jeff is. Well, he’s trying to take over the world. Seriously. He’s so close to doing it, and if you don’t let me out then I’m never going to be able to stop him.”

The nurse said nothing for several seconds. “All right, hon, I think you’re losing your marbles a bit here.”

“He is,” Theta interrupted. “He’s talking about a stuffed yaddlefish right now. Like, for real. I’ve met Jeff, and he is a literal stuffed yaddlefish. I honestly can’t believe that he’s actually claiming that this is true. I’m pretty sure that the real scheme here is him trying to convince us that he’s right so that he can pull some kind of prank.”

The look on Mortimus’s face was one of sheer horror. “He’s gotten to you too,” he said, yanking away from the nurse to get a good look at Theta. “That’s what he always says to me. That he isn’t real and I’m just pulling some sort of prank on everyone. I don’t think it’s true. I think that he’s the one who’s lying to me, to try to get me to remain loyal to him. Well, it’s not happening. I’m not falling for his bull—”

“Excuse me, Mortimus,” the nurse interrupted. She sat down on the stool behind her, then glanced over at Theta. “Could you step out for a minute?”

Theta hesitated. It only made him more scared to realize that he didn’t know what was going to happen to Mortimus, especially since it was something so confidential that he had to step out of the room so that he wouldn’t hear it. It didn’t take him any time at all to make the decision to stay outside and wait for his friend to come back out.

“I’m going to be blunt about this,” she went on, once Theta had left. “I need to know, honestly, if you have ever had any kind of a psychological profile done on you.”

Mortimus nodded. “Yeah, of course. It came back totally perfect. I’m clean as a bee. Bee? I don’t think that’s the right word. Is there a better word? I don’t know. I’m really confused. And rambling. You know what? I think I might have had some of Vansell’s coffee this morning.”

“You’re not going crazy because of coffee, Mortimus. I don’t know what this is, but all of my scans have come back clean. You haven’t overdosed on any coffee or soda or anything like that, and you don’t have any drugs in your system. Which is why I am so confused as to why you’re behaving like this. Are you absolutely positive that your psychological profile came back completely clean?”

“Obviously. I wouldn’t just lie to you, ma’am. I mean, I might prank you, because I prank everyone, but I wouldn’t lie about something like that. I know how important it is to be entirely aware and completely in control of your actions. I’m no fool to Prydonian society. Well, maybe I am, because I’ve never really paid attention in that class, but you know, whatever. I’m a psychology kinda dude. That’s what I like.”

“Why am I letting you ramble so much?”

He shrugged. “Most people let me ramble. I think they’re afraid of making me stop.” Mortimus frowned. “Wait, that’s Magnus. No, they don’t stop me because they know that they’ll just get me started on a stranger tangent. Anyway, yeah, I’m totally healthy. This is nothing. It’s just a prank, I promise. I was, uh, messing with Theta and things got a little bit out of hand. Don’t tell him, please?”

“Fine.” She took a deep breath and scribbled a note on the table beside her. “But if you think I’m going to let this get by without you going to the Headmaster’s office, you’re sincerely mistaken.”

Mortimus groaned when she ripped off the note and handed it over to him. He hopped up and said nothing to her as he left, ignoring her stupid calls after him. He didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. When he got out into the hallway, Mortimus tore the note into bits and threw it onto the floor.

“Don’t worry Jeff, I’m on my way back.”

“What?”

He nearly leapt out of his shoes when he heard Theta and realized that he was standing on the other side of the corridor. “Why are you still here?” he asked. “The nurse told you to go away!”

“Yeah, and now you’re talking about Jeff again,” he said. “When are you going to realize that Jeff isn’t even real?”

“He is real.” Mortimus walked over to his friend and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He used his other hand to point at the nothing that was in front of them. “Let me paint you a picture, Thete.”

Theta almost pulled away from him but found himself mesmerized by the insane story he was telling. Somehow, Mortimus was able to create an image in his mind that was so vivid he felt like he could see it right in front of his face. It reminded him of the shows on the telly, where sometimes people would stare off into space and see a flashback or alternate reality. This was not a pleasant montage, unfortunately, and he was terrified of what was he was seeing.

Death. Destruction. The horrible image of Jeff the Stuffed Yaddlefish, ruling over Gallifrey with an iron fist. His stupid eyes were glowing red, scaring all of the innocent citizens who stood in front of him, listening to his intelligible speech. Theta stopped listening when Mortimus began to ramble and blinked back to reality by tearing himself away from him.

“Oh, my god!” he said. “I thought this was all a joke but you—you actually meant it. Jeff is evil. He’s going to take over the world.”

//

“Dude, you can’t just scream in the corridor.”

Vansell came way too close to slapping Dourgonn across the face before he stopped himself. He didn’t have the same kind of temper that Magnus had, but had gotten into similar trouble because of an inability to keep his anger under control. Clearly, he was getting better at it, though, since he managed to keep himself from clocking Dourgonn.

“I can do whatever I want in the corridor,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Especially since we’re technically still on break until tomorrow. I’m not interrupting any classes.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Dourgonn sighed. “And to think I was actually considering telling you where Millennia went.”

It had been over ten minutes since Vansell had initially left the dining hall, and at that point so much time had gone by that he was certain it was too late. Still, he felt the need to find Millennia just in case she somehow hadn’t bothered to take a sip of her “tea” yet. Even the smallest chance was still better than no chance at all.

“Wait, you know where she is?”

“Duh. We work on the paper together.”

 Suddenly, he realized that he had never touched one of those papers in his life. “You write the paper?”

“Yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “I write the column on gender and sexuality.”

“Figures.” Vansell looked up at down at Dourgonn, who was practically covered in ridiculously showy pride pins. “Can you just tell me where she is?”

The idiot got the most annoying, most smug look on his face, and again, Vansell felt the need to slap him. “Sure, I can tell you… for a price.”

“I have a better offer. How about you tell me where Millennia went, and I promise not to send Magnus over here to kick your ass?”

“Uh, yeah. Okay. That works.” He swallowed hard. “I think she said that she forgot something in her room, and she went back to get it.”

Vansell gasped. If she had gone back to her bedroom with the intention of going straight back, it was almost guaranteed that she left her travel mug behind to collect at a later time. He didn’t say anything to Dourgonn before blasting down the hallway. He didn’t have any time to waste if he was going to make it back to the Prydonian Paper’s headquarters before it was too late.

He shoved past people just as he had before, not letting a single person stop him from reaching his destination. When he finally made it to the room, he nearly burst down the door he was running so fast, with a sense of urgency that was all but wasted. He made it into the room just in time to see Millennia raise the travel mug up to her lips.

“No!” he shouted.

But it was too late. Millennia pulled the cup away from her mouth and made a face. “This isn’t my tea,” she said. She sniffed it a few times, then looked up at Vansell, who was standing guiltily in the doorway. “Why is there coffee in this travel mug?”

“Who knows?” he answered awkwardly. He couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. “It’s not my cup. That’s what I came here to tell you. You accidentally took Rallon’s by mistake, and I was going to switch them for you, but I actually forgot yours in the dining hall, so this is really just kind of awkward. I’ll go now.”

“Wait! I know that you were using this mug. You told me that you had warm milk in there, remember?” She sighed. “I guess I should have seen it coming. Everyone knows that you would never drink warm milk. Plus, it was kind of weird that you were using Rallon’s travel mug when you’ve never, ever touched it before.”

“I can come up with an excuse for that. Just give me a second.”

“Vansell, seriously. I don’t care that you drank coffee. It’s not a big deal. I am a little bit disappointed in you for cheating rather than being honest with me and admitting that you couldn’t do it, but still. I’m not Ushas. I won’t get mad at you or make fun of you for failing the challenge.”

He frowned. “Huh. You know, I already knew that but it’s kind of disappointing to hear you say it? Like, I almost wanted to get shouted at, since I did kind of completely fail the challenge. God, I’ve really gotten used to you weirdos and your shenanigans, haven’t I?”

“Well, you kind of have to.” Millennia shrugged and held out the travel mug for him to take. He grabbed it but didn’t drink any of the coffee inside of it. “If you didn’t get used to our friends and their ridiculous punishments and gags then you would never survive the Deca. We’ve really got our own way of life.”

A blond student that Vansell didn’t recognize spoke up from behind the desk. “You should write a story about that,” she said.

“About the Deca?” Millennia laughed. “No way. I’ll stick to my advice column, thank you.”

But somewhere, deep down, she hoped that she might get the chance to share their stories someday.

//

Drax kept his distance when he saw Magnus in the hallway the next day. It wasn’t necessarily because he saw the one person, but because he saw three separate faces, none of whom had been particularly nice to him in the past. Despite their closeness, they weren’t yet interacting; Magnus was walking by, while Drax’s cousins were focused on something in their lockers.

He nearly turned to walk away, deciding that he would rather skip dinner than get punched again, but stopped when Magnus tapped one of his cousins, Iolta, on the shoulder. Drax was still hesitant and didn’t move any closer out of fear of potentially getting hurt again, but stopped and watched what happened next. It felt like it moved in slow motion.

Iolta turned around to look at Magnus, and within seconds of them making eye contact, Magnus punched him square in the nose. Drax’s jaw dropped, and he nearly ran over, but stopped himself. He knew better than most that angry Magnus was one of the last people you ever wanted to interact with.

“What the fuck, mate?” Rillo reached over to avenge his brother, but Magnus caught his punch and whacked him in the jaw. He cried out in pain, his hands flying up to coddle his developing bruise. “What the fuck is your problem?”

My problem?” He shook his head slowly. “I’m not the one who gets a laugh from hurting people who are skinnier and less stable than me.”

Drax didn’t know whether he should be offended or touched, so he chose not to dwell too much on the comment and instead listened to what Magnus had to say next.

“If you so much as breathe in Drax’s direction again, I will do a whole lot worse than bruise you, understand?” They nodded, and Drax had to admit it felt good to see them look afraid. “And let me get this straight, you assholes; I don’t care about you at all. Someone could come up right now and shoot you both in the head and I would not bat an eye. I don’t give two shits about your sorry asses, and I have no limits on what I’m willing to do to get rid of you. Remember that.”

Rillo and Iolta, unaware of how to deal with Magnus, ran away as soon as he finished talking. He watched them go, then turned around and ended up facing the exact same direction in which Drax was standing. Drax’s eyes widened and he took a step back. He didn’t know exactly how to respond to the situation but did know that Magnus had absolutely not intended to let him know about what had just been done. Regardless, what happened was finished, and there was no way for him to get out of it at that point.

“Hi, Magnus,” he said awkwardly. He slid back into the wall when Magnus approached him, trying to make himself somehow disappear into the red bricks. It didn’t work, and he was forced to take part in the last conversation he ever expected to find himself in.

“Hey. You all right?” There was not the least bit of compassion in Magnus’s tone despite his choice of words, and Drax couldn’t decide how he was supposed to react to that. He thought a nod would make an adequate response, and it appeared to be enough. “They won’t bother you again. You’re good, as long as you don’t tell anyone about this. If you do that, I’ll beat you myself. Understand?”

“Yeah, of course.” Drax shrugged. “But you know, for a minute there, it kind of seemed like you cared about me. I mean, I’m not accusing you of having any sort of compassion, but you clearly just did a nice thing for me. Should I say thanks? Or would you not like that?”

“You can say thanks, but I’m not going to say you’re welcome.”

“You just did.”

He rolled his eyes. “I did it out of the sheer desire to punch someone. You provided me with a target, and it happened to turn into a good deed in the process.”

“I think you did it because you actually care,” said Drax, his tone clearly affected. In a way, it felt wrong to mess with Magnus, but he couldn’t stop his personality from taking over as he placed both hands across his chest. “Don’t try to argue with me, but I just want to say that sometimes you really do things out of the kindness of your heart.”

“I have no kindness in my heart.”

“I’m not going to argue that either.”

//

Out of everything that he couldn’t experience over break, the thing that Koschei absolutely missed the least was probably the Deca’s weekly meetings. They were occasionally fun, but most of the time, they all just sat around while Ushas lectured all of them about something or another that he just didn’t even care about. To be completely honest, he wasn’t entirely certain why he even continued to show up.

“…and I know that a bunch of you probably stopped studying, but you should all remember that it’s actually really important to keep up with your work, because…”

Koschei groaned and tapped Theta on the shoulder. He was tired of listening to her drone on about her stupid break, and how she spent most of her time studying. Theta looked just as bored as he was, and so he gave his friend a look and nodded towards Drax. Theta smirked and turned around. He made a signal with his hands, and Drax smiled. He pulled the rubber band off his wrist and put one end of it on his thumbnail, then stretched it back and launched it directly at Ushas.

She barely ducked before it slammed into her face, and it hit her ponytail before she got out of the way completely. The rubber band flew directly into the chalkboard behind the professor’s desk and bounced off the wall before landing safely on the ground. Ushas stared at it for a few seconds before she looked up, her face almost red with rage. She looked around the room, as if searching for the guilty party, and stopped when her eyes landed on Drax.

“Where’s your rubber band?” she demanded.

He put on an innocent face. “What rubber band?”

“The one that you always wear around your wrist. It’s not there. Where is it, and why did one of those things just fly at my head? You could have shot out my eye!”

“I know, I have brilliant aim, don’t I?” Drax smirked and sort of leaned back in his seat. He reached a hand behind him, hoping to receive a high-five from Jelpax. He didn’t comply, and instead flicked him in the shoulder. “Well, anyway, nobody cares what you have to say. Plus, Theta was the one who told me to do it. He made a little signal with his hands.”

Ushas snapped her head around to look at him. “Why would you do that?” she demanded.

“Koschei told me to!” he blurted. “He nodded towards Drax and I knew what he meant so I went along with it. Sorry that I just wanted to have one more minute of fun before Jeff takes over the world.”

“Who the hell is Jeff?”

Mortimus lifted his head from the desk in the back of the room and stared at her, his eyes wide. “Don’t you dare speak that name,” he said. “That is a horrible, evil name. You’d be better off talking about Beelzebub. At least that won’t get you turned into a slave.”

“What?” The look on Ushas’s face was that of utter confusion. She was so lost on what was said that she didn’t even know where to start with the questions she had. “Does someone want to explain this to me? Because last I checked, there’s no one at this school named Jeff.”

Before either Mortimus or Theta had a chance to explain their insane side of the story, Magnus interrupted. “There is no one here named Jeff. All of this is one insane story involving a stuffed yaddlefish, a kleptomaniac, and two dozen stolen goods. Now don’t pry any further. I promise, you really don’t want to know about the rest of this.”

Ushas nodded. She trusted Magnus’s no-nonsense radar. “Anyway, does anyone have anything else to talk about?” she asked. “Perhaps at least one of you would like to share a story about how you studied over break?”

“None of us studied over break,” said Vansell, rolling his eyes. “That’s why it’s called break, you nitwit.”

Rallon glanced over at him. “Have you had your coffee yet?”

“No. Millennia is forcing me to try her challenge again, and for an entire day this time.”

“It’s not my fault you cheated the first time,” said Millennia. “All you have to do is last one day. No plots, no ploys, no schemes. You can do it, can’t you?”

“Of course, I can.” Vansell took a sip from his travel mug and let out a satisfied sigh. “I just hope that this tea will hold me over.”

Chapter Text

“Why are we celebrating genocide again?”

On the one hand, Theta felt like an idiot for asking the question for a third time. On the other, he had still yet to grasp why exactly they were having a special feast that night, when all they had to “celebrate” was the destruction of an entire race. There were some things that Theta loved being about a Gallifreyan, but so much more that he hated about the race. He almost resented the fact that he too would one day join the ranks of the Time Lords.

“Because the food tastes good and we have no souls,” said Ushas. She took a bite of something and smiled smugly. “You’re never going to survive here if you don’t get a better sense of morals, Thete. You’re far too kind.”

“I don’t like the fact that we technically slaughtered millions of people, and that means I have a messed-up sense of morality?” He shook his head. “I think you all are the ones who need to get a better grasp on reality.”

“Look at it this way, Theta,” Koschei began. “It wasn’t like we intentionally ran in there and killed them all. They were just collateral damage for a deed that worked out in favor of the rest of the universe. Honestly, it all ended really well. Especially for us. Minus the fact that six million people are dead, everything worked out for the best.”

Theta gave him a look. “I never thought you would stoop so low as to imply that killing is okay.”

“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying that unintentional manslaughter in the process of doing a good deed for the sake of the rest of the universe is a great thing. Have you even been following the news? It really doesn’t seem like you read anything about the positives. I don’t mean any offense by that, it’s just that you seem really biased towards your pacifist side of the situation.”

“I’m not a pacifist. I just don’t want to see innocent people die when other methods would have been more successful.”

“What methods?” asked Koschei. “I don’t think that you’re more qualified to make this decision than General Hoex. If he thought that this was the best course of action, then I’m pretty sure it was. He’s never failed before.”

“I know, and I’m not trying to say that he failed. I’m saying that there were far better ways to handle this, most of which didn’t require the deaths of millions of innocent citizens.”

“Would you guys stop it?” Mortimus snapped. He flicked some kind of vegetable at them from the other side of the table, causing Theta to flinch. “Your stupid arguing debate thing is really putting a damper on my mealtime. Genocide or not, we’re getting some delicious food out of it, so I really don’t see what the big deal is.”

Theta wanted to lecture him on what exactly the big deal was, but Magnus’s death stare managed to get a reaction out of Mortimus before anything else. “Are you kidding me right now?” He rolled his eyes. “Mortimus, I will personally buy you steak dinners for a month if you can tell me what exactly we’re here celebrating right now.”

“Well, it’s, uh, you know.” He looked down awkwardly. “We’re celebrating that thing. And people dying. Or that we saved people from dying? This isn’t fair! I don’t read the newspaper!”

“My point exactly.” Magnus shook his head. “You have no idea what we’re doing this for. You’re pigging out on that stuff and you don’t even understand why you’ve been rewarded with it. It doesn’t even make sense, in my opinion. We’re not the ones out there fighting, so why should we get rewards for it? And celebrate what? Gallifrey was never in any danger.”

“Clearly all of you are missing the point on this,” said Jelpax, leaning in to see them better from the other end of the table. “Look, I hate politics as much as the next guy—no offense, Vansell—but it’s still something you need to be educated on. This isn’t about opinions and a sense of right and wrong, this is respecting the government and the general who had the audacity to make a move so bold as that. Whether or not you like the methods, you can’t say that he’s done a bad thing. It’s worked out in the favor of the universe.”

“That’s not even true,” Vansell argued. “I hate to side with Theta, but there are plenty of other things he could have done. I’m not saying that he made a horrible decision, but if you’re talking about how good of an idea it was, it wasn’t. There are a dozen other methods he could have used to complete his mission without killing millions of citizens.”

“Like what?” asked Rallon.

“Well, for one thing—”

“You know, for once, I agree with Mortimus.” Drax looked so utterly bored that he was practically about to fall asleep. His head was resting on his hand, as he leaned forward onto the table. “Does anybody really care about the politics of this? We got good food, we got an extra hour off from classes, and we personally had nothing to do with the demise of anyone. So why should we be so bothered about this that we have to have a whole debate? It’s truly pointless.”

Ushas looked like she was about to explode. “You boys have absolutely no appreciation for anything.”

“Except for food,” Mortimus interrupted.

“Yes, because for some reason you’re utterly obsessed with that garbage. Just get over yourself, won’t you? Personally, I don’t believe you should be allowed to celebrate unless you actually know what we’re celebrating, which several of you obviously don’t. Go educate yourselves and then you can have your food.”

She stood up and snatched Drax and Mortimus’s dishes, then tossed them into a nearby rubbish bin and walked away. Her friends watched her go in silence, none of them bothering to argue with her. If there was one thing that everybody knew about Ushas, it was that nothing and nobody could change her mind.

//

Mortimus barely managed to catch up with Jelpax after everyone had dispersed from the dining hall. He thought his friend looked rather tired, and slightly annoyed when Mortimus tapped him on the shoulder, but he tried not to focus on that.

“Hey,” said Mortimus. He adjusted his pace to keep up with Jelpax. “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you would mind answering a few questions?”

“Questions about what?” he asked slowly.

He raised an eyebrow, as if it were an obvious answer. “Well, you seemed to be quite educated back there, and I thought maybe you could help me try to understand what exactly the banquet was really for? Because I seriously don’t read the paper, and I’m afraid I might find myself in another conversation about morality or whatever and I’d rather not look like an idiot again. Especially not if the person challenging me to a debate happens to be a beautiful woman.”

“In what world is a beautiful woman going to come up and ask you for a debate?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Some of us have weird fantasies. Don’t judge me, okay? Just help me become smart. I want to be a smart person.”

Jelpax let out a long sigh. “Fine, okay. I’ll help you. Where would you like me to begin?”

“Maybe, uh, the beginning?”

“What do you mean, ‘the beginning’?”

He bit his lip awkwardly. “I, uh, don’t really know what any of this is about. I didn’t even know that Gallifrey was at war or whatever until someone said that we were going to get free food.”

“How can you possibly be that stupid?”

“It’s a talent.”

//

Theta tapped his fingers against the desk. He was utterly bored, sitting in cosmic maths class with only minutes to go before they would be dismissed. He hated that the last few minutes of class were always the longest. When finally, the clock struck the hour and it was time to leave, he grabbed his bag with such a ferocity that you’d think he had been let out of jail. He snapped his head up when Professor Unuls spoke again.

“Also, don’t forget about the quiz tomorrow!” he said. “I hope you’ve all studied!”

His jaw dropped. Theta wasn’t the best at paying attention during class, but he would have known for certain if a test had been announced. He turned around to look at Koschei, his eyes wide. Koschei gave him the same look back, then swallowed hard and turned around to glance at Vansell, who didn’t appear to be bothered at all by the sudden announcement.

“What?” he asked, walking over to them as they filed out of the classroom. “Oh, you idiots. You know, surprise tests wouldn’t be so scary if you would just take the time to study for once.”

Koschei snorted. “Us? Take the time to study? Especially when you’re talking about cosmic maths, you’re hilarious.”

“You’re never going to get the degree you want if you don’t pass this class, you idiot. This is one of the absolute requirements for your major.”

“Oh, shit. You’re right.”

They stopped outside of the classroom, continuing their conversation in the corridor. Theta stopped listening to their bickering after a few minutes and watched as his teacher slipped out of the classroom behind them. He was only a few feet away from them when he dropped a piece of paper and it slid onto the floor. Theta dove for the floor at the same time that Vansell did, but Vansell grabbed the sheet first. He held it up, revealing the words on it, and Theta gasped.

“That’s the answers sheet!” he exclaimed. He pointed at it with an exaggerated gesture, as if to make the situation more dramatic, but Vansell didn’t appear to be phased.

“Yes, it is the answers sheet.” Vansell turned it away from him, hiding the answers from his gaze. Koschei tried to peer over his shoulder, but he pulled the paper closer to his body. “Do you seriously think that I’m going to let you see the answers? You’re insane. If you want to get a good score on this test, you need to actually take some time and study for it tonight.”

“No matter how hard we study tonight,” began Koschei, “we’re never going to be able to memorize enough to actually survive this stupid, made-up, totally not planned, and never announced beforehand test. I don’t even know what to study. How are we supposed to know what’s going to be on it?”

“Well, it’s going to be review, I’m sure. Possibly a whole lot of stuff that we’ve been working on throughout this past semester. Have you never studied before?”

Theta shrugged. “I’ve never really felt the need.”

“So, you just pass all of your classes without a single bit of work?”

“Correction,” said Koschei, “he barely scrapes by in all of his classes without a single bit of work.”

Vansell rolled his eyes. “You’re intolerable. Both of you. I don’t mean to sound like Ushas when I say this, but it’s not going to kill you to put some effort into your schoolwork.”

“By ‘I don’t mean to sound like Ushas’, do you mean that you absolutely mean to sound like Ushas? Because you could probably pass for her if you could mimic her voice. Of course, everyone knows that you’re terrible at impressions.”

“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

Koschei shook his head slowly, an evil smile on his face. “Can’t make me forget about it unless you try standup comedy again. And I’m fairly certain you’re not interested in going back to the days where you still had emotion, are you?”

“It’s not my fault that I have perfect grades in emotional detachment,” Vansell snapped. “Some people are just really good at difficult things. Also, some of us are good at actually studying and doing their homework. I’m not pointing any fingers—” despite his words, his made a vague gesture towards his friends “—but some of people are really, really terrible at all of the things that I just listed, and with no shame.”

“How come you just said that you weren’t pointing fingers but then you pointed your fingers directly at us?” asked Theta, raising an eyebrow.

Vansell feigned innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t point any fingers at anyone. In fact, I’m pointing my fingers at myself. See? It means nothing. It’s just the way that I happen to be holding my hands at the moment. Stop accusing me of being a liar.”

“You are a liar. You are the biggest liar. You open the dictionary to the word ‘liar’ and all you’ll find is one big picture of your face.”

“I hate you, Theta Sigma.”

“I hate you too, Nosebung.”

//

Magnus took a deep breath, continuing to pace across the hallway. That morning he arranged to meet Drax after classes, and the idiot had yet to show his face. In any normal situation he would have assumed he decided not to come or another mediocre excuse, but if that were true, he would have told Jelpax. He knew that didn’t happen because he had spoken to Jelpax a few minutes earlier, and for once, he had no idea where his stupid roommate was. If it couldn’t possibly get any worse, Magnus tried to text him several times, and there was no answer.

Which, of course, meant that Drax had absolutely no good reason to not be there with him.

“Hey, Magnus,” said Mortimus. He waved as he walked down the hallway. “What are you doing out here in the corridor? You know that I left our door unlocked, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” Magnus rolled his dark green eyes. “I’m not an idiot, Mort. I was waiting for Drax to get here but he hasn’t bothered to show up yet. What about you? You know that your hand is on Jelpax’s handle, not ours, right? Or have you forgotten your left and right again?”

“That only happened one time! Will you never just let me forget about that? I have dyscalculia!”

“No, you don’t. And if you did, it wouldn’t have anything to do with knowing your left and rights. Aren’t you supposed to know about this kind of stuff?”

He shook his head. “I know mental disorders, not learning disabilities. Yet. And anyway, what’s your problem right now? Any good psychiatrist—such as future me—can tell that you’re extremely riled up right now, and there appears to be no good reason for it. Care to elaborate?”

“Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that Drax never showed up?” Magnus snapped. “Or have you already forgotten that I said that too? I swear to god, Mortimus, you have a brain the size of a walnut.”

Mortimus shrugged. “Yeah, that’s true. But at least my brain the size of a walnut is bigger on the inside. That way I can have a teeny tiny brain and still be smart.”

“I think you just grossly misunderstood the meaning of what I said.”

“Probably, yeah,” he said slowly. “I’ll ask Jelpax to clarify it when I head inside. I’m here to ask him a whole bunch of other questions anyway, so I’m sure he won’t mind if I slip that one in. Oh, by the way, if Drax does show up can you take him into our room? I’d rather he not overhear my conversation with Jelpax. It’s a little bit embarrassing.”

“You’re asking him about the whole genocide thing, yeah?” Magnus raised his eyebrows.

“I cannot confirm nor deny that statement.”

Before Magnus had a chance to come back at him with a snarky comment, he slipped into the room beside him and quickly pulled the door shut. On the one hand, Magnus was glad to be rid of him. On the other, he was disappointed that he was alone in the hallway again, and his brain defaulted to thinking terrible things about Drax.

It wasn’t until twenty minutes later when he finally wandered down the hallway, his face totally relaxed as if he didn’t care at all about the fact that he had left Magnus until almost an hour after they had arranged to meet up. He waved when he saw Magnus leaning against the wall but didn’t smile as he normally did.

“Hey, Magnus,” he said. “Sorry I’m a little bit late.”

“A little bit?” Magnus pointed up to the clock that Runcible had installed in the hallway (specifically above the troublemakers’ doors), which showed the truth on it. “I’ve been sitting around here for an hour, Drax. What the hell were you doing?”

“I got caught up with stuff. Who cares? Just come inside and I’ll get whatever that thing is that you wanted. It won’t take two seconds. You really didn’t have to wait out here. I could have just messaged you when I got back.”

“So why didn’t you message me back when I messaged you about sixty-five times?”

Drax hesitated. “My phone was dead,” he said. His tone was so awkward and embarrassed that Magnus felt compelled to believe him. However, just because he believed him didn’t mean he was about to feel any kind of sympathy.

“If your phone was dead you should have gotten a charger,” he snapped. “Or came over here and told me where the hell you were. Were you with a professor? Or the Headmaster?”

“No.”

“Then why in the hell couldn’t you come over here and do this one tiny thing for me real quick?”

“I don’t know,” said Drax. He looked and sounded almost confused. “I guess I didn’t expect you to stand around in the hallway all day. I kind of figured you would go do something else while you waited for me. Like you said, it has been an hour.”

“And yet you still haven’t done a damn thing.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine, then. Let’s just get this over with.”

“No. Never mind.” Magnus let out a huff. “I don’t even feel like dealing with this anymore.”

Drax watched as he turned around and went into his dorm room before calling after him. “Then why the hell were you standing out here for so long?!”

He didn’t get an answer.

//

Rallon slid up the back of Vansell’s chair like an insect, his eyes peering directly over his roommate’s shoulder. It took Vansell several seconds to notice him, but when he did, he snapped.

“What the hell are you doing?” he exclaimed. He threw his paper down onto the desk and whipped around to look at Rallon, who took a step back.

“I was just trying to see what you were looking at,” Rallon answered. “I figured you wouldn’t tell me if I asked, since that’s printed on professor’s paper. What is that?”

“It’s the answers sheet for tomorrow’s test!”

They both snapped their heads around when they heard Theta’s voice. He pulled himself up through the window and flopped onto Rallon’s bed to cushion his landing. He stood up and brushed himself off, then shook a hand through his dark blond hair, sending dust flying everywhere. Vansell stared at him.

“Did you seriously just climb up through the window?” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Theta, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me? You stole the answers sheet.” Theta glared at him. “Now give it to me.”

“I’m not going to give it to you. Are you insane?”

“Oh, so you’re allowed to cheat and I’m not?”

Vansell snorted. “I don’t need to cheat, Theta, and I’m not.”

“Then why didn’t you give the answer sheet back to the professor?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. “It’s not like he ran off somewhere. You picked it up when he was two feet away. You easily could have caught up to him and handed it back.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t want him to know that I had seen any of the answers. He might have accused me of cheating, and you know what the policy on that is. Or do you? Because you don’t really seem to care.”

“I… know what the policy is.” Based on his tone of voice, it was obvious that he was lying. “But see, I’ve been in trouble like a thousand times, so I just don’t really care. And whatever the policy is it can’t be that bad, because Drax has gotten busted for cheating before and he’s still here with us right now, so…”

Vansell wanted to slap him, but Rallon spoke up before he got a chance. “Drax had to do service for a year,” he said. “He cheated on one test and they forced him to work for an entire year because of it. Do you really want to risk the possibility of that happening to you? I can tell you by experience that it isn’t fun.”

“By experience? Oh, right. The library. Well, anyway, I’m not Drax. I won’t get caught. So just hand over the papers.”

“How many times do I have to say no?” asked Vansell. “I’m not going to give you the— what the—?!”

He didn’t have time to stop Rallon before he grabbed the answer sheet off his desk and ran across the room with it. He didn’t hand it over to Theta, but kept it in his grip, wrinkling the paper between his fingers. His eyes were wide, and it was clear that his decision had been an impulsive one.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he snapped. “You better be shredding that.”

“I didn’t study,” Rallon confessed. “I didn’t study, and this test is my first class in the morning. I’ve been trying to cram in some final work but it’s not enough. I need this.”

“Good job, Rallon!” Theta cheered. “Come on, mate. Let’s go back to my room and start writing those answers on our hands, yeah?”

“Well, it’s probably not a good idea to write them on our hands. I mean—”

“Whatever. Let’s just—”

Theta took a step towards the door but tripped on the cord to Rallon’s bedside lamp. It wrapped around his ankle and caught on the leg of his pants. Just then, while the lamp was already tipping, a big gust of wind swept through the window and knocked it off balance, sending it flying out the window. Theta shrieked before the cord suddenly became tight and yanked him out the window with it. He barely grabbed onto the ledge with his fingers before plummeting to his doom.

“Help!” he screamed. “Oh, my god! Help me!”

Vansell and Rallon both rushed over to the window. Rallon held out his hand first, and tried to pull Theta up, but his fingers slipped, and he fell down to the next ledge, screaming the whole way there.

“Holy shit!” Suddenly, Koschei appeared out of the window beside theirs, his eyes wide as he leaned out of it to see his friends better. “Guys, what happened? Why is Theta falling to his death?”

“Please don’t talk about death!” Theta cried, trying desperately to keep his eyes up. “I don’t even want to think about falling right now. Oh god, my finger is slipping!”

“One finger? You have nine more, Thete.”

“Oh, thank god!”

Koschei leaned out of his window and turned to look at Rallon and Vansell. “What happened?” he shouted. “Did you throw him out?”

“What? No!” Vansell’s eyes went wide. “Why would we throw Theta out of the window?”

“I don’t know. You guys do weird things sometimes.”

“So do you,” said Rallon. “If anything, we’re the normal ones.”

“This is really no time to be arguing, you guys!” Theta screamed. “I have no upper body strength. I’m probably going to fall any second unless you guys do something!”

“Do what?” Koschei shouted.

“I don’t know!”

“Wait, I got it!”

Vansell knew that the plan was a terrible one as soon as he saw Koschei disappear through his window. When he reappeared, he was holding a floor lamp, which he held out the window in front of him. Rallon’s jaw dropped as soon as he realized what was about to happen.

“I’m going to drop this lamp down, and you grab onto it, okay?” Koschei called. “Then I’ll be able to pull you up.”

For some reason, Theta seemed relieved. “Okay. Throw it now!”

Koschei tossed the lamp out of the window, and Theta grabbed onto the thin lamp’s base. As per Vansell’s morbid but realistic prediction, it snapped as soon as it tried to hold onto his weight, and he screamed. He barely grabbed onto the lamp’s cord before it was too late, sending him swinging towards Koschei’s window as the lamp’s plastic cover went crashing to the ground. It shattered into pieces upon impact, causing Theta to let out a yelp when he saw it land.

“Oh, god!” he screamed. “That could have been me! That could have been me!”

“Shut up, Theta.”

“You shut up! What is the cord stuck on? How am I even still hanging up?” He let out a wail when it bounced, knocking him down another few feet. “I’m going to die!”

“You’re literally on the first floor now,” said Vansell, peering out the window. “It’ll be like a five-foot fall.”

“That’s taller than me!”

“You’re not that short,” Koschei argued.

Theta said nothing back but clung to the electrical cord as if it was the only thing saving him from certain death. Personally, Vansell was just wondering how long the cord was and why exactly a floor lamp needed it to be that long. How far away did they think the outlets were?

Rallon leaned out the window beside Vansell and looked over at Koschei just in time to see him throw a basketball out the window. It flew down and smashed Theta in the head, with near-perfect aim. He shrieked, then lost his grip on the cord and fell. Rallon called after him, worried about his friend, and failed to notice the wind sweeping by. It ripped the answer sheet right out of his hand and sent it flying in the wind.

“Theta?” Koschei called. He didn’t get an answer. “Oh, god. Theta? Theta, are you okay?”

Vansell turned to face him and waved to get his attention. “I’m pretty sure you knocked him out cold, Koschei. Was there really no better way for you to get him down?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time!” Suddenly, he disappeared back into his room, but his voice could still be heard down below. “Theta! Theta!”

//

Jelpax regretted agreeing to answer Mortimus questions. It seemed simple at the time, but after he had asked his six-thousandth question, Jelpax began to get tired of answering the obvious. Several times he directed him to books and articles, but the idiot refused to read. “Why would I read when I have you?” he would say. It was just one of the many times that Jelpax was reminded of why he never hung out with Mortimus on his own accord.

“…and those people think that genocide is okay?” said Mortimus slowly. His eyes were flickering back and forth, trying to make sense of the information that he was given.

“No!” Jelpax gaped at him. “Are you insane?”

“Only a little bit.”

He rolled his eyes. “What I meant to ask was: have you been listening to me at all? That’s not even remotely what I was saying. What is the point in trying to teach you about this stuff if you’re not going to listen?”

“I don’t know.” Mortimus sighed. “This isn’t even that interesting. It seems like something only you and Vansell would be into.”

“Which is exactly why I’m trying to figure out why I’m wasting my time standing around here with you.”

“To be fair, you’re sitting, not standing.”

Jelpax took a deep breath. “It’s going to be a long night.”

//

Koschei ran outside as quickly as he could. He was trying not to worry too much, but momentarily feared that he had killed Theta by accident. It occurred to him after throwing the basketball that his height estimate may have been off, due to the angle he was looking down at, which meant Theta had probably fallen much further than he had thought. Because of that, he feared that his friendly push to get him down the short fall had ended up becoming involuntary manslaughter.

If that was the case, he would double-check that term with Rallon later to make sure he knew what he was talking about.

“Theta!” He ran over to his friend as soon as he spotted him lying on the ground, his clothes covered in dirt, grass, and what Koschei hoped was plant juice and not blood. He shook Theta by the shoulders, trying to wake him from his slumber. “Theta, are you okay?”

Several seconds passed before Theta let out a groan and opened his eyes. He rolled over to look at Koschei and squinted when his eyes met the sunlight. “Kos? Is—Is that you? Where am I?”

“You fell out of the window, and Rallon threw a basketball at your head!” Koschei grimaced at his own lie and hoped that Theta wouldn’t remember the truth. Luckily, he didn’t.

“Huh. I don’t remember that.” He made an odd face. “Who—Who’s Rallon?”

His eyes went wide. “Oh no. Please tell me you know who Rallon is. Please tell me that this is some kind of a stupid joke. It’s not funny, Thete. It’s really, really not funny.”

“I’m not joking. I don’t— is my name Thete? I can’t— I remember you, but I don’t remember anything else. I—” He cut himself off dramatically and flopped down into the dirt. Suddenly, Koschei realized that he was lying in a small, Theta-sized crater.

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” he blurted. “I still don’t know exactly how you fell out the window, but I feel so bad that I didn’t save you. I’m the worst best friend ever.”

“Are we best friends? It’s all getting so fuzzy. Are you sure we’re not boyfriends?”

“Unfortunately not, no.”

Theta sighed softly. “That’s too bad. You’re really hot.”

Koschei’s heart started to pound against his chest, and he took a deep breath to steady himself before he swallowed hard. “That’s very nice, but we don’t have time for this right now. We need to go see the nurse.”

He reached out to grab onto Theta’s hand, then turned around when he heard people walking up behind him. Rallon rushed over and knelt beside them. “Is he okay?” he asked.

“No.”

“Where did the answer sheet go?” Vansell cried. He looked all around, as if he would somehow be able to figure out what the wind did with it. “Shit. I’m going to go see if I can find it. Call me if Theta dies.”

“That’s not funny!” Koschei shouted. He watched Vansell walk away, waiting for a response, but he got nothing. He then tried again to lift Theta to his feet, and he pulled away.

“Who—Who are all of these people?” he asked, his voice hoarse. Suddenly, Koschei realized that the injuries may have extended beyond his memory. “What’s going on? Someone please tell me what’s going on. Oh, my head hurts.”

“It’s okay, Thete. Everything is going to be okay. This is Rallon—” he gestured to him “—and we’re going to help you stand up now, okay?”

He shook his head aggressively, then winced. “Rallon?” he gasped. “Isn’t he the one who threw a basketball at my head in a ravenous attempt to end my life?”

“What? No!” Rallon’s eyes went wide, and he whipped his head around to look at Koschei. “I didn’t do that! He was the one who—”

Koschei placed a hand over his mouth. “No need to get into the details, right? Let’s just go see the nurse. Come on. Please.”

“Fine.” Finally, Theta latched onto one of each of their hands and allowed them to hoist him to his feet. He stumbled when he was finally up, and Koschei had to grab onto his forearm to stop him from falling. “Jeez, guys, this really hurts.”

He slipped out of Koschei’s grip, took one step back towards the dormitory, and face-planted into the dirt. Koschei was fairly certain he screamed after that, but it was hard to tell exactly, with dirt filling his mouth. It flew everywhere when he pushed his head out of the ground.

“Are you okay?” asked Rallon.

“I would be if you hadn’t thrown a basketball at my head. Asshole.”

“Hey!” Koschei snapped. “Don’t you call Rallon an asshole! Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he didn’t mean to drop it on your head.”

“Then why did it fall exactly on my head? And where did he get a basketball from? I’m not going to be able to answer these questions myself unless I get my memory back, idiot, because I have no deduction skills. Now take me to the nurse!”

He held out both of his hands as if he were royalty, and Koschei took one of them to lift him to his feet. Despite his formal rise, Koschei did not help him so much as they walked down the hallway, and instead dragged him nearly all the way there.

//

Millennia could tell that something was off as soon as she sat down at the dining table. It wasn’t because half of their friends were missing, or even because Drax hadn’t touched his food, but because Magnus look significantly more pissed off than he did normally. His face was slightly knotted, his eyes narrowed the tiniest bit, and he tapped his leg against the against the table ferociously.

“Everything all right?” asked Millennia. She dropped her bag onto the floor beside her, choosing to get her dinner after she had resolved the obvious issues at the table. “You look a little bit on edge, Magnus.”

“Nope.” Magnus stopped bouncing his leg and looked over at her. “It’s nothing major, really. Just that someone at this table has no idea how to tell time.”

“I told you,” said Mortimus, “I’ll learn how to do it someday.”

“Not you, you douchebag.” He hit Mortimus in the chest and he winced. “I’m talking about Drax. The supposed tech genius who has no idea how to charge his phone.”

“I never said that I don’t know how to charge my phone,” Drax snapped. “All I said was that it was dead. But thank you for making assumptions about me and my intelligence.”

Magnus raised his eyebrows. “I’m not making assumptions about anything. I know you, dolt, and I know exactly how you think. You didn’t charge your phone because you knew that I was messaging you and you thought that it would be better to just ignore it instead of facing life and triggering your stupid anxiety or whatever.”

“Hey.” Jelpax cut in before Drax had a chance to come up with a response. “It’s one thing to be mad at him for blowing you off, but it’s another to start dragging personal attacks into this. If you’re going to be angry about his actions, you don’t need to drag those reasonings into it. It’s none of your business.”

“Except it is my business, because whatever he did contributed to the fact that he never showed up.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Millennia, “but it sounds like he did show up. He just wasn’t on time. Unless the screaming I heard out in the hall earlier was unrelated?”

“Of course, it was related.” Magnus rolled his eyes. “I don’t understand how all of you are so stupid. Why do I waste my time with you lot?”

Drax shrugged. “I’ve always thought you had some sort of sick fetish for making fun of people. That or you’re just really a raving lunatic. Psychopath or something. Certainly not mentally stable.”

“I’m fairly sure he has some kind of medically-recognized anger issues,” Mortimus began, “but I’ve been reluctant to put a specific label on it. I’m kind of afraid that he’ll look it up, decide that he doesn’t resemble any of the symptoms, and then lash out at me. It doesn’t seem worth it to reveal my hypothesis.”

“Idiocy aside,” said Magnus, “that is one of the smartest things I’ve heard you say in a long time. I wasn’t aware that you knew all of those big words.”

Mortimus narrowed his eyes and jabbed his fork in his roommate’s direction. “Of course, I know lots of big words. That’s like, one of the basic requirements of psychology. If I didn’t know big words, I wouldn’t be able to pronounce any of the stuff that I have to say, let alone spell it out for tests.”

“What about for general homework?” asked Jelpax.

“It doesn’t matter if you spell stuff right for general homework.”

The two of them launched into a staring contest, while Millennia turned back to Magnus. “Anyway,” she said, “are you planning to hold a grudge over whatever this is?”

“Of course, he is,” Drax cut in. “It’s Magnus.”

“He has a point,” said Magnus. He nodded towards him before finishing his dessert.

Drax, on the other hand, still had yet to touch his meal. “That was actually very passive-aggressive. Don’t overestimate his ability to agree with me.”

“You guys really need to learn how to get along,” Millennia sighed. “It’s not fun to spend time with you when you’re having fights every other week.”

“I’m not having fights every other week. Magnus is having fights every other week, not necessarily with me.” He twisted his fingers around the rubber band on his wrist. “So really, you should be lecturing him, not us. I’m not the one who forced him to wait around in the hallway for an hour when I clearly wasn’t going to show up. Haven’t you ever been stood up before?”

Magnus rolled his eyes. “No, because no one else is stupid enough to commit to something with me and not come. We’ve just had a discussion about my rage, were you not listening? Idiot.”

Drax opened his mouth to respond but stopped when Jelpax nudged him in the shoulder. He whispered something to Drax, who quite literally pushed him away in response. Jelpax didn’t give up immediately, and flicked him, then whispered something again. This time Drax put in the effort to whisper something back, and they kept up a short conversation all the while flicking each other and gesturing wildly.

They finally stopped when Drax ate one single hash brown, which Millennia thought to be out of spite, based on the expression on his face. Jelpax grabbed his bag and stood up, then stormed out of the dining hall without another word. Despite his friend’s sudden departure, Drax appeared unfazed.

“So anyway,” he said, turning back to Magnus, “you were calling me stupid?”

“Hey, what just happened?” asked Millennia. “Is Jelpax okay?”

“I don’t care. Magnus. Go on. Tell me I’m stupid.”

The voice that spoke was not Magnus. “You’re stupid,” said Ushas, suddenly appearing behind them. “Now, would anyone care to tell me why you’re all so pissed off?”

//

“I swear to god,” said the nurse, “you kids need to stop messing with this poor boy! He’s been in here more times than I can count.”

Koschei winced. “Yeah, and you wouldn’t believe they were accidents every time, would you?”

“Not really.” She sighed and set her stethoscope around her neck. “Listen, I won’t tell the Headmaster about this if you can tell me what my name is.”

“Of course, we can tell you what your name is!” said Koschei. He smiled and stared at her for several seconds, then glanced back at Rallon. He shook his head slowly. “It’s uh. You know. It’s uh… Ms. Idontknowsa?”

“No. My name is not ‘Idontknowsa’.” The nurse clicked a pen spitefully and started to scrawl on a doctor’s note. “You’re all going to be in trouble now. Including Theta Sigma here, assuming he remembers how to walk in a straight line. He’s not doing much else right now.”

Theta was, as she said, mumbling incoherently and staring up at the ceiling. He twiddled his fingers like a little kid might, and rocked back and forth just slightly, as if he was listening to some kind of music in his head.

“So, what’s wrong with him?” asked Rallon. He was leaning against the wall by the door, biting his lip nervously.

“Visibly?” She sighed and put down her pen. “Nothing major. He’s pretty banged up, though. Lots of bruises and scratches, and he’s got a nasty bump on his back that he is going to feel as soon as my painkillers wear off. I’ve yet to find a cause for his sudden-onset amnesia, though, which is quite concerning.”

“Do you think he’s going to be okay? Will he get his memory back?”

The nurse shrugged and shook her head. “Unless I can determine a specific cause, I can’t really give you an answer to that question. You can try to jog it all you want, but I can’t make any promises. He might have to start school over again.”

“All because of me?” Koschei gaped. “I mean, uh, Rallon?”

“For the last time, this isn’t my fault!” Rallon snapped. “Stop accusing me of things!”

He scoffed, but it sounded fake. “Yeah, right. Liar. We all know you threw that basketball.” He turned back to the nurse and changed the subject before Rallon had a chance to argue. “Anyway, can we take him out of here yet? Or do you want to watch him overnight or whatever they’re always doing on TV?”

“TV?” said the nurse, raising an eyebrow.

“Books! I read books. We don’t illegally have cable.” He laughed awkwardly, then grabbed onto one of Theta’s hands and lifted him to his feet. “Anyway, we have a lot of homework to do, so we’d better go. Bye. Thanks for making sure that Theta wasn’t dying.”

Koschei latched onto Rallon and yanked him out of the room at the same time he and Theta went, and they headed off down the hallway, the nurse calling after them the entire time. It took Rallon several minutes to realize that she was after them because Koschei hadn’t taken the doctor’s note when they left. He wondered if he thought that would allow them to get away with it but came to the conclusion that Koschei couldn’t possibly be that clueless.

Right?

//

Jelpax hit his absolute limit when Mortimus knocked on his bedroom door that night.

He was still mildly pissed off after his argument with Drax at dinner that evening, and also partially concerned about the fact that he hadn’t returned to their dorm room despite it being mere minutes until their curfew. He tried to focus on his book, to read until all hours of the night like he normally would, but he couldn’t seem to keep himself from worrying about Drax (and forcing himself not to care because he was still annoyed).

It was during that period of pretending to read whilst being internally pissed off when Mortimus banged on the door. He didn’t wait to be invited in—unfortunately, as Jelpax had no plans to welcome him—but waltzed into the room as if it were his own. He gave Jelpax a strange look, then walked over to his bed and sat down at the foot of it. Jelpax pulled himself further towards the opposite side of his bed.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Mortimus shrugged. “Well, some girl did what you said she wouldn’t—came over to debate me—and I needed to ask you some questions about it.”

“Hold up.” Jelpax leaned forwards slightly and raised a hand to tell him to be silent. “A girl actually walked up to you and asked you to debate with her about this genocide thing? You?”

“Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but yeah pretty much. She was asking her friends if they wanted to do a practice debate thing with her, so I shoved them aside and told her about how I’m a Gallifreyan Politics major.”

“You’re not a Gallifreyan Politics major.”

Mortimus rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well that’s kind of the point of you lying for me, isn’t it? Now hurry up and help me! I’ve got a whole list of things here that I didn’t know how to respond to.” He pulled a small notebook out of his pocket and held it up to show Jelpax. “I told her that I was taking notes on what she was saying, I just didn’t tell her what I was going to do with them.”

Jelpax snatched the notebook away from him. He tried to decipher what he had written on the page, but the notes were so vague and confusing that he could hardly tell what questions the girl had even asked him. Plus, the handwriting was nearly illegible, and there were question marks littering the page like a plague.

“What is this?” he asked, his brow furrowed.

“Those are my notes,” Mortimus answered. He rolled his eyes. “Were you not just listening to me? That’s really rude, you know. Whatever. Can you just please help me figure out what she was talking about, so I don’t look like a fool when we meet up to finish our debate tomorrow?”

“No, I can’t. I have no idea what any of this says.”

“Wow, for  Gallifreyan major you’re really stupid.”

Jelpax dropped the notebook and looked up at him, his face screwed up. “I’m not a Gallifreyan major. For god’s sake, stop making things up!”

“Sorry,” said Mortimus, “but that’s the point of a joke. You’re supposed to come up with a good punchline.”

“That wasn’t even a punchline.”

He frowned. “Never mind. Let’s just talk about this, okay?” He spun the notebook around to face him and pointed to a specific line on the page. “What does this mean?”

“Are you asking me what she was talking about, or what the hell your handwriting is supposed to say?” Jelpax flipped the book back around and narrowed his eyes. “You put fourteen question marks after it.”

“I was really, really confused.”

“No matter how confused you are, it’s not grammatically correct to use more than one question mark.”

“Whatever. It’s not like this is a test.” Suddenly, he stopped, and an extremely serious expression appeared on his face. “Wait, are we supposed to use proper grammar on tests? They only grade that in Gallifreyan class, right?”

Jelpax shook his head slowly. “I sincerely hope you’ve only recently stopped using proper grammar in your other classes.”

“I’ve never used proper grammar in my other classes.”

“Good god, Mortimus. I don’t understand how you expect me to help you when you’re so obviously out of my depth. I can’t give you any sort of knowledge that’ll help you win a debate. I’m sorry. You’re just not built for that. If you don’t even know when to use proper grammar, I don’t know how I’m meant to teach you about the morality issues behind genocide as collateral damage. It’s just too difficult.”

“Oh, come on. Please?” he begged. “You teach Drax stuff all the time and he’s just as thick as me.”

He opened his mouth to argue but cut himself off. He wasn’t in the mood to get into a fight with Mortimus. Of course, Mortimus took this to mean something different, as the lack of a reaction was extremely out of the ordinary.

“You didn’t argue,” he said. He narrowed his eyes, as if he could somehow find an answer on Jelpax’s face. “Why didn’t you defend Drax? You always defend him. What’s going on? Are you mad at him? What were you arguing about at dinner?”

“Stop asking me questions!” Jelpax snapped. “This is none of your business, and I’m not going to discuss it with you.”

“Sure, you will. Getting people to talk about things is kind of my specialty.”

“I know, but not talking about things is kind of my specialty. Now get lost, please.”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on.” Mortimus made himself more comfortable on the bed, as if he wasn’t planning to leave any time soon. “This is important, Jelpax. I don’t want you guys to fight.”

“It’s not your problem,” said Jelpax irritably, “and we fight all the time. It’ll blow over, don’t worry about it.”

“Fine.” He grabbed his notebook, then stood up and walked over to the door. “But I just want you to remember that one of these days it isn’t going to just ‘blow over’ and you’ll regret not listening to me.”

“Whatever.”

Jelpax grabbed his book and didn’t bother to watch him head out the door. He did, however, listen when he heard two voices on the other side of it after he had closed it behind him.

“Mort?” Drax’s voice was muffled slightly by their door, but he clearly sounded confused. “What are you doing here? You have figured out which side of the hall your dorm is on, right? Because I’d rather not go through all of that madness a third time.”

“We’re not going to go through any kind of madness,” said Mortimus. “Not involving me, anyway. I just came over here to talk to Jelpax, but it turns out he’s completely useless. You should go in there and yell at him for it.”

“Why would I yell at him for not helping you? Wouldn’t I want to yell at him for something involving me?”

“I don’t know. Just go yell at him for something. Anything. I really don’t care. But if you yell at each other, you’ll feel better, so it’s a great idea.” A loud bang cut him off before he could continue. “Oh. That’s Magnus. We’re probably being too loud. See you in the morning.”

The sound of a door shutting told Jelpax exactly when Mortimus left, but a few more seconds passed before Drax walked into their room, a confused expression on his face. He didn’t say anything to Jelpax when he walked in. If it was about any other person, Jelpax would have blamed that on the fact that he was in the middle of reading a book, but that excuse didn’t suffice for Drax. He never cared when Jelpax was busy, and constantly interrupted him regardless of what he was working on.

Jelpax watched out of the corner of his eye while Drax silently collected his pajamas, then headed into the restroom to change and take out his lenses. He came out a few minutes later and switched to his glasses, then sat down at his desk and started tinkering with something. Finally, Jelpax gave in.

“Should I make the tea now or in a week?”

It took him a minute to answer. “Do it now. I don’t have the patience to prolong this.”

Jelpax smiled to himself and stood up. They were both really good at holding grudges, but they were far better at being best friends.

//

“I can’t believe it,” a student groaned, walking out of the classroom. “I barely passed!”

“Barely passed? At least you passed at all,” Koschei sneered, as the girl disappeared down the hall. He looked down at his paper longingly, the horrible grade staring him in the face. “I’ll have to retake this class next year if I don’t get my grades up soon.”

“You’re an idiot.” Vansell’s paper was marked with a nearly perfect score, but he didn’t flaunt it. His face, however, did the work for him. “I told you that you should have studied. If you had just listened to me then you wouldn’t be in this mess right now.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that I’m still never going to listen to you.”

Vansell rolled his eyes but didn’t speak. They both turned around when the classroom door opened again and Theta waltzed out, a satisfied grin adorning his stupid face. Koschei instantly knew that something fishy was going on, because he had never seen Theta smile after receiving his test results before. This time, however, he wore the biggest, dumbest smile in the world.

“Why are you so happy?” he asked. “Has your amnesia suddenly given you the ability to do maths?”

He shook his head. “Nope. But thank you for throwing a basketball at my head, Kos. It really helped.”

“What? I didn’t do that! Rallon did that!”

“No, he didn’t. I saw you do it, and I don’t have amnesia either,” said Theta. He shrugged awkwardly. “What I do have, however, is the answers sheet. And when I see Rallon at lunch later, I am going to personally thank him for dropping it out the window. It landed directly on my face and I was able to pocket it before any of you saw.”

“Wait!” Vansell snapped. “This entire thing was a ploy so that you could cheat at your test?”

“Absolutely it was. I honestly can’t believe that you guys were stupid enough to fall for it. I ought to come up with something even grander to play on you in the future.”

Koschei was nearly fuming, one eye twitching as he clenched his fists. “You made me think that I killed you,” he said slowly. “I thought that you were dead, and then I thought that you lost all of your memory. That isn’t a good prank, Thete! In fact, that’s the cruelest, meanest, least-funny prank you’ve ever played ever!”

Vansell held up a hand. “Grammar, Koschei. That was a very redundant sentence.”

“BFD. Come here, Thete. I’m going to kill you.”

Theta’s eyes went wide. “Please don’t. You’re a lot taller than me. Plus, I’m still kind of scared because I don’t know where you got that basketball from.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh, god.”

He tore off down the hallway as quickly as he could, Koschei following inches behind him. Both of them crumpled up their test results in the process, but it was clear that they didn’t care. Vansell wouldn’t have either, if he had done what they did. One fail and one false perfect? He could hardly believe that he was still friends with the idiots.

//

“So, what I want to do is try out some new techniques to calm him down,” Mortimus went on. “I’m having a little bit of trouble narrowing down where exactly I want to start, since he’s kind of a unique case, but I know that we have to do something. He’s becoming intolerable. So…”

Although she was happy that he was trying to help, Millennia was starting to wish that Ushas had never given Mortimus permission to speak at their weekly meeting. He was far from eloquent with his words and repeated himself more times than she could reasonably count. Plus, he walked around the subject in circles for nearly ten minutes before he finally made it to the actual point of his speech, which was exactly why Magnus walked into the room before he had a chance to finish.

“I’m not saying Magnus is mean, really, just that he’s—standing right there!” He jumped when he heard the door slide shut, and his eyes went wide. “Hi, Magnus. We weren’t talking about you. I was just going back to my seat. I’ll see you later. Now. Sometime. Sorry.”

Mortimus hustled back to his seat in the middle of the room and ducked his head down, as if that would somehow protect him from Magnus. It wasn’t entirely effective, as he still received a death stare, but he didn’t get shouted at, so it was mostly a success. After Magnus had taken his seat as well, Ushas walked back up to the front of the room and leaned back against Borusa’s desk, her arms crossed against her chest. She surveyed the room for several seconds before she spoke.

“So,” she said, “does anyone have anything they’d like to discuss at the meeting this week?”

“Actually, yeah,” Magnus answered. He didn’t stand up, but took a long, intimidating look around the room. “I know that you lot are the only ones who would ever even attempt to mess with me, and I know that you did. So, whoever broke into my room and alphabetized all of my stuff has hell to pay. If you tell me now, I might take some of the severity off your punishment.”

Mortimus slid down further into his seat, and Theta couldn’t resist pointing to him. Magnus followed where Theta’s finger went, then whipped around, his hair hitting his face as he turned to look at his roommate. His eyes narrowed into one of the most terrifying expressions that Mortimus had ever laid eyes on, and he swallowed hard.

“Please don’t hurt me,” he mumbled. “I was looking for something and then I found it but I messed up your stuff in the process and I tried to fix it, but I didn’t know where everything went.”

“Because you don’t recognize basic organization systems?” Magnus’s voice was not harsh, but utterly demeaning, as if he were speaking to a child. “Did you even go to primary school? Or did you drop out of there too?”

“‘Too’? I’ve never dropped out of anything before.”

He scoffed. “We all know that you’re never going to graduate, Mort, and I’m sure we’ll see you quit a lot of stuff before then. Don’t try to act like you have any sort of follow-through. You never finish anything you start; on the off chance you start something at all.”

“I don’t like this meeting,” said Mortimus quietly. He turned to look up at Ushas. “Can we talk about something else please? This is just really uncomfortable.”

Ushas nodded. “Absolutely.” She would never admit to it, but she didn’t like the way that Magnus was talking either. “Does anyone else have anything to say? Stories to tell, information to share, maybe we could talk about homework for once?”

“Nobody wants to talk about homework,” Koschei laughed. “Are you thick? We’ll talk to you about different subjects but do it on your own time. These meetings are for Deca-related information only.”

“We, the Deca, are students of the Academy. Half of our current lives are spent doing homework. Therefore, this is relevant to the Deca. If you think otherwise then you can just go ahead and leave.”

“Okay.” He went to stand up, but she cut him off.

“No! You can’t actually leave, you idiot. We’ve barely gotten started. What are you thinking?”

He sat back down slowly. “I was thinking that you gave me permission to leave and I was going to do so.”

“Have you never heard of sarcasm?” she snapped.

“It didn’t really sound like sarcasm to me,” said Drax. He had his chair pushed up close to the one in front of him, and the desk pushed out of the way. His feet were resting on the back of the seat in front of him.

Jelpax, who was sitting in said chair in front of him instead of his normal seat, nodded. He seemed unfazed by Drax’s posture. “You’ve told a lot of us to get out before,” he agreed. “Probably all of us, actually, not including Magnus. So, it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to assume that you actually wanted him to leave.”

“Well, I didn’t, and I don’t like him assuming that was what I meant. Sense the tone, idiots.”

“Use the tone, idiot,” said Theta. He reached over to give Koschei a fist-bump, then pulled away at the last second. “I’m still pissed at you for the basketball, by the way.”

Koschei sighed. “Whatever. I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

“You’d better.”

Ushas cut them off almost immediately after they finished speaking. “Anyway, if no one else has anything intelligent to discuss today, then I’d like to tell you all about what I did these last few days. While you were all off partaking in your idiotic shenanigans, I was doing what I called my week of homework, and I think you could learn a lot from this. During said week, I…”

Drax pulled his feet back, then scooted forward. He pushed his desk to the side and leaned his head on Jelpax’s warm shoulder before closing his eyes. It was going to be a long meeting, but at least he had someone to help him get through it.

Chapter Text

“Ow, shit!”

Millennia turned to see what was happening as soon as Ushas cried out. Her roommate shook her wrist rapidly, as if trying to get something off of it, then scrubbed at it with a paper towel for several seconds. She took a deep breath and blew on it a few times, before finally relaxing back into her seat. Millennia wasn’t sure whether to be more concerned or confused, so she decided to go with the one that her instincts called to the most.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She walked over to Ushas’s desk and put a hand on the back of her chair.

She nodded and pulled a stray lock of brown hair back into her ponytail. “I’m fine,” she said. Despite that, her arm was turning a bright shade of pink. “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of testing things on myself. It’s dangerous, and occasionally it hurts, which significantly slows down my progress on the rest of the experiment. I need someone else to do this for me; to be there when I need to see whether or not my aloe might be too acidic for skin. I can’t go on like this. Not by myself.”

Ushas turned her head around and gave Millennia a longing look. She took a step back, both hands held up in defense. “Oh, no,” Millennia chuckled. “I am not getting anywhere near your experiments. They are far too dangerous for me to get involved. Plus, I’m always afraid you’ll pull out another potato from wherever you were keeping the last one.”

“Smell-proof chamber.” She waved a hand around dismissively. “We’ll get to that later. Right now, I need to go talk to the boys and see if any of them are willing to be my lab monkey.”

“I don’t mean to put a damper on your plan, but I can pretty much guess that you’re going to get a whole bunch of ‘no’s. They might be stupid, but they’re not that stupid.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care how stupid they are or aren’t. I need someone to help me with my experiments and if I have to bribe them to get them here, then so be it. This is happening.”

“Ushas, wait.”

“Nope, you can’t stop me. I’ve already made up my mind.” Ushas took her gloves off and dropped them onto her desk, then grabbed her phone, typed out a message, and hit send. “There we go. I’ve just sent a group message out to the boys asking if any of them are willing to help me. Oh, the responses are coming in already!”

Her heart sank once she saw what they actually said.

ME: Looking for a lab rat! Any of you lot interested?

KOSCHEI: NO LMAO

DRAX: bitch what

MAGNUS: Have you lost your mind, Ushas?

RALLON: Sorry, no

MORTIMUS: BAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAHAHAHAAA

JELPAX: new phone who dis

VANSELL: I think not. Contrary to popular belief, I do need two hands.

THETA SIGMA: O_O

Millennia peered over her shoulder to read the messages, then gave her a look. “I don’t want to say I told you so,” she said, “but I think that the messages pretty much do it for me.”

“In my defense,” Ushas argued, “not all of them said no. I mean, with Magnus it was implied, but perhaps Mortimus was laughing at how fun it might be? And Drax may have been asking for more information. I don’t really know what Theta was trying to say, though, and I’m pretty sure Jelpax hasn’t actually gotten a new phone recently.”

“Mortimus was laughing at the fact you thought any of them were going to agree. Theta was trying to explain his distaste through an emoticon. And I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Drax and Jelpax switched their phones for some reason, because both of those responses were kinda out of character.”

She rolled her eyes. “So, they’re not on board yet. That’s just because I haven’t told them the bribe.”

“Bribe?” Millennia stopped in her tracks. “You are not going to bribe our friends, Ushas.”

“How else am I going to get them to respond?” She smiled evilly and stood up. “Now, I’ve got business to attend to. I’ll see you around later.”

Millennia watched in horror as Ushas strode out of the room confidently, her chin held high as if she actually believed that whatever insane plan she came up with was going to work.

//

Rallon knew that something was going to go horribly wrong the moment Mortimus stopped him in the corridor.

“Oh, hey!” he said. He grabbed Rallon by the forearm and pulled him aside eagerly. “I’m really glad that I ran into you. Well, not you specifically, but I was looking for whoever the first Deca member I would find was, and it happened to be you, so yeah. Anyway, I was just in foreign cultures, and we were talking about the ways that different species make decisions. It turns out that some humans actually engage in a formal battle for things so simple such as choosing what to watch. Are you interested in battling me?”

He shook his head. “Sorry, but no. I don’t really think I want to battle anyone this morning.”

“Come on, please?” Mortimus begged. “It’s not even dangerous. I can hardly believe that this is considered a duel at all. Look! I got the instructions right here if you want to take a look. Please? Just please take a look. I really, really want you to duel with me.”

“Why me?” asked Rallon. “Go find somebody else to play with.”

“Because I found you first and I don’t want to walk all over the place again. I really, really want to try this. Please?”

Rallon sighed. He didn’t verbally agree but took the paper from him to check out the instructions. If it was a quick game, then perhaps he could indulge Mortimus for a few minutes just to get him to go away. He read the rules several times to make sure he understood and nodded slowly as he did so.

HOW TO DUEL WITH ROCK-PAPER-SCISSORS

After a count of 1-2-3, and at exactly the same time, each player makes a shape with their hand - either:

1) A rock (closed fist)

2) Scissors (the pointing and middle finger in a V shape)

3) Paper (fingers together and flat)

Rock beats scissors (by crushing them); scissors beat paper (by cutting it); paper beats rock (by covering it). The picture above shows you how it works. If both players choose the same shape it's a tie and requires you to duel again.


“Wow.” Rallon furrowed his brow. “I didn’t know that humans knew how to engage in such interesting methods of dueling. I suppose that, yes, I will duel with you one time.”

“Yes, thank you!” Mortimus grinned. He took the paper back from Rallon and set it on the ledge beside the window. “Okay, let’s do this. Ready? I’ll count to three.”

Rallon found that it was surprisingly difficult to decide which one of the three weapons he wanted to arm himself with but managed to choose paper before Mortimus did the call. They stuck their hands out at exactly the same time, and Mortimus gasped.

“I won!” he said.

“No.” Rallon shook his head and used his free hand to grab the rulebook—or rather, the single sheet of paper—and double-checked before holding it up for Mortimus to see. “Look at this. Paper beats rock.”

Mortimus frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. My fist could easily crush your puny open hand in a feat of combat.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t a feat of combat. This is a silly duel that aliens have. It’s not supposed to actually hurt people, unless there’s a second sheet of paper you’ve left lying around somewhere.”

“I don’t think so. But it seems kind of weird that you would just stick your hands out and declare a winner without a proper battle.”

Rallon shrugged. “I’m not saying that I agree with the rules, I’m just telling you what they say.”

“Huh. Are you sure?” Mortimus grabbed the paper back and turned it around several times as if that would somehow help him to read it. He stopped after a few seconds, then lowered it and sighed. “I guess you are. Well, that’s a first.”

“No, it isn’t!”

“I think we should try again. I don’t think we played it right the last time. Come on.” He pulled his hand back and shook himself off as if he was getting ready for battle. “Ready? One… two…”

Rallon used his three seconds terribly, and by the time Mortimus finished the countdown, he still had no idea what he was going to choose. As such, he chose nothing. He kept his hand in a fist, and it collided with Mortimus’s. They stared at each other for a few seconds before pulling apart.

“What do we do now?” asked Mortimus. “We chose the same thing.”

“I think we have to go again. That’s what the rules said.”

“Oh, okay.” He nodded. “Let’s do this. For real this time.”

//

When Millennia knocked on the door, she expected to be greeted by Rallon, which was why she was so confused when it was Magnus who eventually answered. She gave him an odd look when she walked in but made sure that she wasn’t rude in her gesture.

“Is Rallon here?” she asked.

Vansell raised an eyebrow. “Does it look like he is?”

“Why do you always do things like that?”

“Like what?”

“Be rude.” Millennia tried to cross her arms, but the basket in her hand stopped her. “I was just asking a question.”

He shrugged. “I don’t care. What are you holding?”

“Mini muffins. I was going to give them to Rallon and Mortimus since they were supposed to be in here working on a project all afternoon, but I guess they’ve found a new place to study.” She looked rather disappointed about that fact, but he didn’t comment on it. “Oh well. I haven’t got time to go searching right now. Could I just leave these here with you two? You’re welcome to try some if you like, just make sure that you save some for the others. I baked them special.”

“Uh, okay.” Vansell took the basket from her and peeked under the towel she had placed on top. “Thanks, I guess?”

“You’re welcome. Now, I have a lot of homework to do so I’ll see you guys later, yeah?” She leaned around Vansell. “Bye, Magnus.”

He said nothing and waved lamely in response. Vansell copied him but added a small smile to the gesture before he closed the door, leaving him and Magnus alone with the basket of mini muffins. He turned around and showed them to Magnus, who raised an eyebrow.

“Did she literally leave us a basket of mini muffins?” he asked, his tone flat.

“It sure looks like it,” said Vansell. He took a whiff of the basket’s scent, then dropped it down onto Rallon’s desk and turned back to Magnus. “He’ll come back later. He didn’t say he was going to be out for long so I’m sure he’ll come around sometime soon.”

Magnus nodded. “We should probably get back to working on our assignment now.” He paused for a significant length of time. “Unless you’d rather pig out on Millennia’s mini muffins?”

“I will not ‘pig out’, Magnus. I will, however, eat one or two in a sophisticated manner.” He went back to retrieve the basket and took it over to his own bed, then sat down beside Magnus and took the towel off of it. “What kind do you think they are?”

“I don’t know. You didn’t ask and I don’t know food for shit. What we do know is that it’s either good or bad and we’re about to find out which.”

He took one of the muffins off the top and peeled the wrapper off, then popped the entire thing into his mouth. He chewed it silently, his face blank as he engulfed his initial taste of the tiny treat. Vansell waited to take one of his own, remembering what had happened when Koschei decided to start cooking for Theta a few years earlier. Luckily, Magnus didn’t spit out the muffin. Instead, he reached out to grab another one.

“That good?” said Vansell.

Magnus nodded. “I think we have a future pastry chef in our midst.”

“Huh.” He threw caution out the window and grabbed a muffin, then tossed it into his mouth. His eyes went wide as he chewed the fruity treat and he turned to Magnus in slow motion. “Good god,” he said. “It’s like eating a tiny drop of heaven.”

“Yeah.” He pulled the basket closer to him. “We’ll get back to working on our project just after I eat six more of these. Hold on.”

Vansell didn’t complain. He wasn’t planning to do anything without eating at least a few more muffins either.

//

“That’s all you have to offer?” Koschei shook his head and pointed his fork in her direction. “It’s not enough, Ushas.”

Ushas rolled her eyes. “The offer doesn’t even extend to you, idiot. I need someone who won’t spend the entire time making jokes about me.”

“Whoa. In that case, you’re really looking in the wrong place.”

The only reason that Koschei, Theta, and Drax had agreed to meet up with Ushas was because she promised to bring them food. She had, luckily, so they at least got some of Millennia’s signature treats in exchange for their appearance. Drax wasn’t entirely sure why he was still sitting there after he had finished his muffins, but he stuck around nevertheless. It wasn’t like he had anywhere better to go at the moment. For being such a troublemaker, his life was remarkably uneventful.

“Yeah,” Drax agreed. He tossed his last muffin wrapper into the nearest bin. “Have you ever actually had a serious conversation with any of us? No jokes, no fights, no ulterior motives?”

“With you three specifically? No.” Ushas shook her head. “But I asked everyone in the Deca, not just you, and I have had some decent conversations with some of the smarter people in our group. Vansell, Magnus, and Jelpax, for example.”

“You’re seriously thick if you thought that any of them were going to help you. The fact that they’re so smart should be an obvious turn-off. None of them are anywhere near thick enough to try out any of your experiments before you’ve confirmed them to be safe.”

She shrugged. “You never know. I thought they might be curious about the results, like me. You’ve gotten Rallon to throw caution to the wind before, so I don’t see why we couldn’t convince any of them to do the same.”

“If you’re referring to the library,” said Drax, “that was all me. And I might have gotten him into it, but I know Jelpax. He would never, ever go along with anything like that.”

“Nor would Magnus,” Koschei added. “I probably know him the best out of all of us, since he hates me the least, and he spends most of his time making fun of the fact that you’re always going off and working on stuff that’s probably going to blow up in your face. I’m fairly certain he isn’t dumb enough to try to stand underneath the TNT right before you light it.”

“I feel like I’m supposed to say something about Vansell now,” Theta began awkwardly, “but I actually don’t know him all that well, so I’m just going to piggyback on what those guys said and say that he’s not stupid enough to get involved with your idiocy.”

Ushas gave him a look. “I’m not an idiot. That’s the entire point of this; convincing everyone that there’s no high risks to being my lab rat because I’ve already run enough tests to be sure you won’t die. Get hurt? Maybe. Suffer a harmless but intrusive side effect? Possibly. But I would never put you up for a test if it were fatal. That could get me expelled.”

“Yeah.” Koschei nodded and blinked several times. “That’s the only reason you wouldn’t want to kill your friends.”

“Please stop refuting my points. I do have more to offer you, you know.” She leaned down and grabbed her backpack from beneath the table, then pulled out a notebook and opened it up. She slid it across the table to the three boys, who knocked heads while trying to read it. “I understand that you’re not particularly interested in my plan, but I think that with a little convincing, I could change your mind.”

“Hm.” Theta narrowed his eyes and looked up from the notebook. “I’m not really a big fan of this—bribery, I mean—but I can’t say I’m not interested.”

“I can,” said Koschei. “This is garbage. Did you design this bribe specifically to get me out of the running? Because if you did, you’ve succeeded. I have no interest in this.”

Drax took a longer look at it before saying anything. “I think I’m going to side with Theta, unfortunately,” he mumbled. “I really wish that I could tell you no, because I don’t like you, but I’m failing hard this semester and this… this would be brilliant.”

“Unless you’ve already got a top score in that class. Seriously, what’s in this for me, Ushas?”

She ignored him. “So, is that a yes from you two then?” she asked, turning towards Drax and Theta.

Theta shook his head. “I want the reward, but I’m still not dumb enough to risk it.”

Before she could repeat the question, Drax pointed towards Theta and nodded in agreement. She let out a sigh and grabbed her backpack as she stood up from the table. “You’re missing out. This is a fantastic opportunity.”

“…to lose an ear,” Drax finished for her.

None of them bothered to stop Ushas when she stormed out of the dining hall after that.

//

“I just don’t understand it!” Mortimus groaned. He grabbed the rules and read over them several more times, as if hoping that the answers to his questions would somehow appear on the half-blank page. “What are we supposed to do if we keep having ties? Just keep going? How do humans do this?!”

“How do humans do what?”

He turned around to see Jelpax peering over his shoulder, trying to read the rules. Mortimus handed them back to him and waited while he inspected them; Rallon staying silent beside them. It all started as a gag for him, but at some point during their duel he became committed to winning and he couldn’t leave Mortimus until he fully understood how everything worked. Which, of course, was why he was still standing there in the hallway nearly two hours after they had started playing the game.

“Why does this method of dueling look suspiciously like a game?” asked Jelpax. He handed the rules back to Mortimus and took a step back. “No one actually battles like that. It’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” said Mortimus. He raised an eyebrow dramatically, to which Jelpax rolled his eyes.

“It is. If you two are trying to play it then you’re wasting your time.”

Rallon shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a waste of time if you’re having fun.”

“Yeah, but it is though.” Jelpax pointed to the top of the page, where Mortimus’s class information was written. “You’ve got that class in fifth period, and you’re standing almost directly outside of the classroom, which means that you’ve just come out of there and started playing this game. Both of you skipped sixth period and you’re about to skip seventh as well. All for this stupid game? You guys really need to go get yourself some lives.”

“It’s not a game, it’s a duel,” Mortimus defended. He crossed his arms. “You just don’t understand it because you’ve never done it before. Asshole.”

“Whoa, no need to be rude. I was just telling you my opinion on it. You’re free to feel differently, but as a dedicated student of different cultures, I think that this is rather ridiculous. There’s been some very obvious mistranslations somewhere.”

I don’t know,” said Rallon. “It’s not often that I would side with Mortimus, but I’m pretty sure that the professors know more than you do. If this was a mistranslation, they’d know.”

“Or they think even lower of humans than I do, and they want to make them seem worse.” Jelpax rolled his eyes. “Did you even take the same social studies course as I did? The bias against certain chapters was outrageous.”

“Yeah, I just kind of ignored that.” Mortimus shrugged like it was no big deal. “I mean, this is Gallifrey. We’re supposed to be biased. It would almost be wrong if we weren’t. Scratch that, it would be wrong if we weren’t. Haven’t you heard the President’s speeches?”

Rallon blinked. “The President doesn’t tell us to be biased.”

“Subtext. Who’s the smart one now?” He smiled smugly, then turned back to Jelpax. “Anyway, if you aren’t going to duel with us, then go away. We’re kind of in the middle of something right now. Technically, we’re still in the middle of a battle in fact, since we’ve yet to figure out how to end the duel.”

“It says right here.” Jelpax grabbed the sheet of paper back and pointed to a specific line. “It’s just a one round thing, and if you tie you go again to declare a winner. I’d assume it’s nothing difficult after that, just best two out of three or five out of seven. You’re really making this more than it is.”

“Fine, then why don’t you show us what it is?” Mortimus cocked his fist and held it out, as if he was about to engage in another duel. He tilted his head slightly, trying to challenge his friends.

Jelpax groaned and reluctantly curled his fingers into a fist. “Why do I always get involved?”

//

Magnus was finding it remarkably difficult to concentrate on his homework, and it was irritating him much less than it reasonably should have.

On any normal day, he would be angry at the fact that he literally couldn’t focus on his work, but that day he still felt fine. Happy, even. It was something that he almost never experienced, and he couldn’t make sense of the emotion, or why he wasn’t pissed off as per usual. It wasn’t like he changed anything in his schedule—not substantially, at least—nor had he made any sort of attempt to be a better person. Therefore, there must have been something else that caused the sudden influx of serotonin.

He was fairly confident he found his solution when his eyes landed on the basket of mini muffins beside him. Nearly half of them were gone at that point, and he could hardly remember eating so many. He knew that he and Vansell had been snacking while they worked, but they must have snacked far more than he realized. The basket was practically overflowing with muffins when Millennia dropped it off. He tapped Vansell’s hand before he could reach for another one.

“Hey,” said Magnus. Vansell tore his gaze away from the muffins to look up at him. “Quick question before you eat a bunch more of those. Do you feel any different now than you did when we started working?”

Vansell hesitated. “Not too much. I mean, I’m more motivated than I was before. A little bit happier, perhaps? I don’t know. I honestly feel pretty weird. Do you think that we ate too many of Millennia’s muffins?”

“No, I don’t. They’re so tiny that it’s practically impossible to eat too many of them. I think that what happened is that there’s something in them.”

“Oh, god.” Something clicked on his face, and his eyes went wide. “I think I know what it is.”

“Me too.” Magnus nodded and picked up a muffin, then lifted it to his nose and took a whiff. “These things are laced with fucking drugs, aren’t they?”

“No. I think it’s… love.”

He dropped the muffin back into the basket and scooted away. “I’d rather be poisoned than infected with the disgusting disease known to some as affection.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I doubt that the love was intended for us. Millennia did say that she brought them for Rallon.”

“And Mortimus,” Magnus pointed out. “I could buy that she likes Rallon, but there’s not a chance in the world she would want to extend any kind of love to Mortimus. She knows better than anyone what he does to girls. She’s cleaned up so many of his messes it’s almost unreal.”

Vansell sighed. “Drugs, love, or whatever else, I don’t think I care. I’m going to eat another one.”

For a brief second, Magnus considered telling him off, but he didn’t. Instead, he too grabbed another muffin and tossed it into his mouth. He could bare a little happiness in exchange for the delectable treats.

//

Theta knew that it was going to be a long day when Ushas sent out the initial text message, but he hadn’t expected to get so annoyed. For the most part, their ridiculous lives were entertaining rather than excruciating, but this time, Theta was just about ready to punch Ushas in the nose.

“Please?” she begged. She was trailing behind him and Koschei in the hallway, as she had been ever since they walked out of the classroom. “It’s not even a permanent commitment. If life stuff happens or I accidentally hurt you, then I will let you back out. I’m sure I’ll be able to find a replacement eventually.”

“Because it was so easy the first time,” said Koschei sarcastically.

“Shut up. I’m not even talking to you.”

“And again, I don’t understand that! Why would you include me in the group text if you didn’t actually want me to be your lab rat? You’re not hurting my feelings if that was the plan.”

“My plan wasn’t to hurt your feelings.” Ushas rolled her eyes, and Koschei began to wonder if one day they would just plop right out of her head from the sheer number of times she did that. “I just changed my mind on letting you be my lab rat. I don’t think you would be a good fit. It’s nothing personal.”

“Or is it?” asked Theta dramatically. “How do we know that this entire thing isn’t even a ploy? This could all be one elaborate prank to crush Koschei’s spirits. I wouldn’t put it past you. You’ve done some horribly cruel things in the past and I don’t think you’ve discovered what a proper prank is yet.”

“Oh, I haven’t discovered what a proper prank is? You’re the ones who tied the lunch lady to a tree and laughed your arses off when Rallon burned down the library.”

“To be fair,” said Koschei, “the first one was only our idea. We didn’t actually execute it. And the second one we had nothing to do with. However, if you’re looking for the guilty party for both of those, you should go talk to Drax. He’s the evil mastermind.”

Ushas nodded. “Anyway, we’ve gotten off track. Theta! What will it take for me to get you as my lab rat?”

“You could try giving me a million dollars,” Theta answered. “Maybe the answers for every test during the semesters that I work for you? If you really want me, you should find some contraband and get it in here. I would never turn down the chance to play with some illegal items. Even if I didn’t want them it would be fun to distribute them for the chaos it would cause.”

“Are you having a laugh?”

“I don’t know. Are you? Because I’m honestly having a hard time believing that this is all true.”

“Of course, it’s true.” Ushas sighed. “I have never pulled a prank in my entire life. I don’t understand why you suddenly think that I’m trying to pull something on you now. I genuinely need someone to help me with my experiments.”

Koschei raised an eyebrow. “Then can you tell us exactly what brought this on? Because you’ve been fine for years.”

“Well, it’s—” She groaned and pushed up her sleeve, revealing a pink burn that stretched across her wrist. “I was trying out this new aloe stuff and I may or may not have added too much of this… acidic solution that I would rather not explain. Anyway, it was supposed to heal burns instantly, but it seems to have unintentionally created some surface burns instead.”

“Oh!” Theta nodded slowly as realization dawned on him. “So, you’re not doing this as a joke. You’re doing this because you actually know as a fact that your experiments could hurt people and you don’t want to be the one always coming out with burns on your arms.”

“No. I’m not afraid of getting hurt, if that’s what you’re implying. Nor do I wish any harm to come to you or any other members of the Deca. All I’m saying is that it’s rather difficult to continue working on experiments if I myself am mildly injured and I would prefer to mildly injure other people. That way I can fix things with far less hassle and become safer in the long run.”

“So basically, you’re saying that you’ll kill your lab rat, but you’ll survive, so you’ll be able to make sure that the next one doesn’t die? Yeah, still not interested.”

Ushas sighed. “You’re missing out.”

“I really don’t think so.”

Once again, she rolled her eyes, then strode past them and disappeared down the corridor.

//

“What is that?”

Rallon, who had chosen scissors in the trio’s most recent duel, used his free hand to point at Mortimus’s. He shrugged innocently, as if he wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

“I’m using fire,” he said proudly. “I think that’s the real trick to this game. You have to choose the secret options.”

“What secret options?” Jelpax dropped his fist and grabbed the paper off the windowsill. “There are no secret options, Mortimus. Look at the sheet. There’s just the three.”

He shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong. We’ve gotten nowhere with our previous matches, and I’m willing to bet that this is the reason why. This game makes no sense because we’re actually missing half of the rules; the ones that no one will talk about. You know apes. They cheat at everything! It’s honestly a wonder that I didn’t think of this before. It makes so much sense.”

“Whatever. Let’s try this one more time, but fairly, yeah? No fire.”

They all readied their hands, and Jelpax began the countdown to start. When they launched their weapons, Rallon chose scissors, Jelpax chose rock, and Mortimus was aiming a gun at the both of them. Jelpax groaned, while Rallon tossed his hands into the air irritably.

“No guns either, you idiot,” Jelpax snapped. “Why would you think that you can use gun? This is not rock, paper, gun!”

“No, it’s rock, paper, scissors, gun,” said Mortimus. He shrugged and dropped his hand. “I think you two just aren’t creative enough for this form of dueling. You’d best stick to the traditional styles.”

“For one thing, I’m still not convinced that this is actually a form of dueling. For another, I’ve never dueled anyone, so why would I go do something else now? I’ve only done this because you dragged me into it and now you’ve started cheating.”

“I’m not cheating.”

Rallon cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt, guys, but we still haven’t actually played a round where somebody won, so I’d really like it if we could just try this again. Without guns, fire, or arguing, please?”

“All right.”

They got back into position again, and Jelpax started the countdown. He chose carefully, weighing several factors into his decision before he landed on scissors. He beat Rallon, who chose paper, but not Mortimus. His hand was making some sort of half-thumbs-up expression, which Jelpax failed to decipher. All he knew was that it definitely wasn’t rock.

“What the hell have you chosen now?” he deadpanned.

“Bomb.” Mortimus snorted, as if the answer was obvious. “What does it look like? A flute?”

Jelpax rolled his eyes. “I really regret stopping to talk to you guys. This has been the most pathetic forty-five minutes of my life.”

“And yet you’re still here,” said Rallon. He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “I know that Mortimus is being really annoying about all of this, but you must be having some kind of fun, right? Or you would have left like an hour ago.”

“Did you not hear me? I haven’t even been here for an hour. Good god, how did I become friends with you two?”

“Well, it was kind of forced,” Mortimus admitted. “If I remember correctly, you hated all of us at the beginning. Except for Drax. But you were biased towards him, since you already knew him and everything. Also, I’m still not convinced that you didn’t have a crush on Ushas.”

He made a face. “Since when do you think I used to have a crush on Ushas?”

“Since you’re remarkably compatible.”

Jelpax snorted and shook his head. “You are so wildly wrong that I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Maybe we could all begin by trying again?” Rallon suggested. “One more round? No guns, no fire, no bomb, no nothing except for rock, paper, and scissors?”

Mortimus kept his gaze on Jelpax for several more seconds before he answered, as if he was trying to figure something out. “Yeah, okay. Let’s do it.”

//

Ushas pounded on the door for far longer than she reasonably should have, but she knew that Drax had to be in there. She had come across Jelpax in the hallway—hanging around with Rallon and Mortimus for some bizarre reason—and she knew that neither of them carried keys. That meant someone was inside of their dorm room, because the door was actually locked for once. Which was quite strange, but she chose not to question it. She didn’t want to risk angering her last chance at a lab rat.

Nearly two minutes after she started pounding on the door, she finally got a response. However, that response didn’t come in the form of the door opening. “Oh, for fuck’s sake! What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you about something,” Ushas declared. She made sure that her voice was bold and proud, in a highly convincing tone.

Drax did not sound amused. “If Jelpax isn’t dying, then you don’t need to talk to me about anything. Go away.”

“Then yeah, Jelpax is dying. Open the door, please.”

“Jelpax isn’t dying!” She could hear him walk across the room, but he still didn’t open the door after he stopped in front of it. “What could you possibly want from me so badly that you had to knock on my door for so long? Aren’t your knuckles broken yet?”

Ushas let out a huff. “No,” she snapped. “Now please, open the door. I’m not going to leave until you do.”

Although he hesitated for several seconds before he finally did as he was told, Ushas was not surprised when Drax finally slid the door open. She smiled at him brightly, and he didn’t smile back. In fact, his face was almost entirely blank, his extra-pale complexion flushed slightly pink. She lowered her expression and nearly asked if he was okay but decided against it. If there was one thing she knew about Drax, it was that he hated talking about himself. So, she decided to focus on herself instead.

“I still need a lab rat,” she said, “and unfortunately, you’re my last eligible candidate. So, I’ve come to see what I can do to convince you.”

“Didn’t we talk about this a few hours ago?” Drax crossed his arms and stayed in his place blocking the doorway (most likely to prevent her from staying for too long). “My answer is still no, Ushas, and I’m a little more pissed off than I was earlier, so I’d say it’s probably not a great idea to try and talk to me about stupid shit right now.”

“What is your problem? I’ll give you whatever you want. I don’t even need you to help me all the time, just every so often. It’s really not as horrible of a commitment as it seems like. Please consider it?”

“I did consider it. That was the entire point of our meeting earlier. I considered it, I said no, and I kind of thought you were going to leave me alone after that. Clearly both of us were wrong about something, and I’m struggling to figure out which one of us made the stupider assumption.”

“You never fail to shock me with your mood swings,” said Ushas, her tone flat. “You really need to step back and just look at yourself sometime. Just a couple of hours ago you were a stupid goofball and now you’re here eloquently ripping the shit out of me. I don’t understand how you can change so drastically over such a short time. It’s almost unrealistic.”

Drax took too long to come up with a response. “Yeah, well we all have baggage, don’t we?” He took a deep breath and stepped aside, allowing her to enter the room. “Come on. Let’s discuss this like normal people. We might as well argue for a bit before I tell you ‘no’ again.”

“You’re intolerable.”

“I pride myself on that fact.”

He slid the door shut once Ushas was inside, then turned back around to face her. She nearly opened her mouth to speak but stopped and turned the subject back again. “What are you wearing?” she asked, her eyes taking in a scan of Drax’s bare feet, black skinny jeans, and over-sized, striped gray t-shirt. “You know that we’re still within school hours, right? You’re not allowed to change out of your robes until everything has officially finished for the day.”

“Everything has finished for me,” he said bluntly. “I’m not going to dinner, so I don’t see a point in sitting around in my robes. Are you going to talk to me about the lab rat thing or not? Because I really don’t have the patience for this interrogation right now.”

She nodded. “Yeah, let’s talk about that. Here, let me give you a perspective on what you’d actually be doing if you said yes. Hold on.”

Ushas grabbed her phone, then opened her messages and quickly typed one out.

ME: Drax is being moody again, just FYI.

She quickly closed the app, then pulled up a picture of the aloe she had been working on and showed it to Drax. After he had taken a proper look at it, she rolled up her arm to reveal the light burns she had suffered that morning.

“This is probably the worst hazard the job will entail,” she said. “Minor burns. They don’t even really hurt that much; I just can’t wear gloves with them which slows me down. I can’t see the nurse either because they’ll ask me about what I’m doing, and you know that never ends well.”

Drax nodded and tossed the phone back to her. “Still, though. Is that really the worst thing you’ve done to yourself?”

“In terms of testing? Yes. This is pretty much it.” Her phone buzzed when she went to turn it off, so she glanced down at the screen.

JELPAX: (>.<)b

She wasn’t entirely sure what the emoticon was intended to mean, but it pleased her that Jelpax actually took the time to respond for once. Apparently, all she needed to do to get his attention was mention the moody idiot he shared a room with. She stowed that information away for another time.

“Okay.” Drax bit his lip in thought. “You’ve not convinced me yet, just for the record. I’m just trying to figure out if you’re lying about this or not, because I’m really not sure.”

Ushas shook her head. “No, I’m not lying about this. I know that I can be a little deceiving sometimes—” Drax snorted “—but this isn’t one of those times. I want you to know exactly what you’re getting into. That’s the basic rules of a business deal.”

“This is a business deal now?”

“Of course. I am planning to supply you with some form of compensation. That’s what we were discussing over muffins earlier, remember? I almost helped you cheat for an entire semester.”

“Yeah.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve actually thought about that, and I don’t think that it would work as well as we’re imagining. I’m pretty sure that our professors would catch onto the fact that I miraculously got smart.”

“Not necessarily,” Ushas argued. “I mean, they know that you’re smart already. You managed to make it into the Deca back when it was actually an academic thing.”

Drax shrugged. “I guess so, but still. It would look suspicious, so that form of payment just isn’t going to work. You’ll have to offer me something else if you really want to get me on board with this.”

“Like what? I don’t know you as well as you think I do, Drax. I know your funny side. I know the guy who cheats at tests and goes to see the Headmaster four times a week. I don’t know this.” She gestured to him, trying to point out his slumped posture, messed up hair, and unusually serious expression. “If you want me to give you ammunition for pranks, I can do that. If you want me to give you something actually useful, you’re going to have to tell me what you’re looking for, because I don’t know what you want from me.”

“Okay.” He took a deep breath and crossed his arms. “I have a… thing that you could help with. I guess.”

“What? Anything.”

He hesitated for so long that Ushas nearly thought he was going to back out. “All right, I’m going to tell you this, but you can’t tell anyone else, okay? Especially not Jelpax.”

That piqued her interest. “I swear.”

“I have this weird thing. I can’t— I don’t want to tell you exactly what it is. But when I… sometimes it gets really bad, and when it does that I get— it gets hard to write. And so, I was thinking, since you were willing to give me the answers for tests, that you might maybe be willing to write a few papers for me? Not all the time. Just… when I need it. Say, every time I test an experiment for you, you owe me one paper.”

Ushas sighed and shook her head. “I can’t write your papers for you, Drax. Our professors would know.”

“Then I guess you’re out of luck, because that’s my only offer.” He shrugged and stood up. “You can go now.”

“Drax, wait—”

“No. That was all I had. Now I won’t do it. I’ll talk to you when I feel like it. Aren’t you late for dinner?”

He practically shoved her out into the hall, then slammed the door shut when she was barely an inch outside of it. Ushas groaned and began the not-so long walk to the dining hall. She would just have to see if any other suckers were willing to be her lab rat.

//

“Okay. I think that this has hit a point where we can no longer ignore what we’re doing.”

Vansell and Magnus had supposedly been working on their project for quite a while by then, but they hadn’t actually managed to get a whole lot done. They spent more time snacking than working, and continuously told themselves that they would stop; that they didn’t need to keep snacking so much. But the muffins were absolutely delicious, and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t keep away. They ate one after another, and another, until there were only crumbs left.

“I’m not ignoring anything, I’m just snacking while we work,” said Vansell. He reached into the basket, and his eyes went wide when his hand found no snack. “Oh, my god. We ate them all.”

“What?! You ate all of my muffins?!” They whipped their heads around when Millennia shouted and sank in on themselves. She was standing in the doorway, her bright gray eyes filled with rage. “I told you that I made those for Rallon, and you still ate all of them. I even told you that you could have a few, as long as you at least saved some! And you didn’t! You didn’t save any of them!”

“Really,” Magnus began unapologetically, “you should take this as a compliment. We did this because they were just so delicious, we couldn’t keep our hands off.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t even care. Give me the basket so I can make more.” Vansell stood up and handed her the basket, and she took it gratefully, then swung it at him. He barely ducked before she hit him in the head.

“Are you crazy?” he shouted.

“Are you fat?” she snapped. “If you weren’t already, you’re going to be now!”

Magnus ducked for cover while Vansell hauled ass out of the room. Millennia was known for being sweet and friendly, but few people knew of her dark side, and those who did never wanted to get on it. Unfortunately for Magnus and Vansell, it was too late. They were doomed.

//

More than the absurd rules of the game, Jelpax was perplexed by the sheer impossibility of what was happening. They had played so many rounds of rock, paper, scissors at that point that he couldn’t even count them anymore, and yet somehow, none of them had managed to win yet. They kept having ties or rounds that didn’t count because Mortimus came up with some new thing that instantly ruined the match.

To be completely honest, Rallon thought that Mortimus’s inventions were pretty funny for a while. It was clever, choosing things like volcano and typhoon, but it suddenly stopped being funny when he flipped them off. Literally. Instead of choosing one of the actual weapons, or one he made up that was at least sort of intelligent, he made a fist and lifted his middle finger. On his face he wore the stupidest grin in the world—an expression that neither Rallon nor Jelpax returned.

“What?” he said, lowering his hand. “I didn’t mean it to be rude. It was just a joke. I was trying to be funny. Who cares? You flip me off all the time, Jel.”

Rallon turned to look at Jelpax quickly, his eyes wide, but his friend seemed unfazed. “Yeah, but I’m remarkably sassy,” Jelpax argued. “Everybody knows that. You doing this now, especially in the middle of a battle, was just inappropriate.”

“I thought you didn’t believe that this is a form of dueling. What did you say about it earlier? That it’s some kind of game? Well, you don’t seem to be treating it like any kind of game now.”

He crossed his arms. “Well, I’m just trying to conform to the rules. If I’m going to play this stupid game, I figure I should at least pretend to see it for what it claims to be.”

“Guys, let’s not argue, okay?” said Rallon. “It’s not like this even means anything. We weren’t even fighting for a reward, which is a bit stupid considering what the whole thing was designed for.”

“Wait, wait, wait. So, you guys just started doing this for nothing? I mean, I respect that you wanted to see someone win and that’s why you kept doing it, but you started just out of the sheer curiosity of trying this stupid thing?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m out of here.” Jelpax waved and started to walk away. “And you should be too, because we’re like halfway through dinner already and you’re going to miss it.”

“Oh, shit!” Despite what he said, Mortimus grinned. “I bet I could convince someone else to duel with me!”

He tore off down the hallway at full speed, leaving Jelpax and Rallon to follow behind him like snails.

//

“…come on, please?” Mortimus begged. By the time Rallon and Jelpax made it to the dining hall, everyone else at their table appeared to be thoroughly and properly annoyed. “Just one round. I haven’t even won yet!”

“That’s because he cheated sixty-seven times,” said Jelpax. He took a quick look around the table and frowned. “Where’s Drax?”

“He said he wasn’t coming,” Ushas informed him. She took a bite of her meal without a care. “I told you he was being moody again.”

Jelpax’s entire face fell and it was hard to decipher whether he was disappointed or pissed off. Ushas made the decision not to ask, and instead let him mumble something about leaving before he disappeared out of the dining hall in a flash. She turned to Mortimus after that and gave him a very serious look.

“If you’re willing,” she said, “I’ll play that stupid game with you if you’ll agree to be my lab rat.”

He burst into laughter and wiped a stray tear off his face. “Oh, god. That’s a good one. Me allow you to put me in danger in exchange for what will probably only be one round of a game I have been playing for the last five hours? I don’t think so. But thanks for the laugh.”

“Good god, Mortimus. That was the longest run-on sentence I have ever heard. Have you never heard of this thing called a full stop?”

“No, I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “But whatever. Have you seen Magnus?”

“Uh, yeah. I think Millennia was talking to him earlier?” Ushas made a face. “She said something about muffins, I think. Not really sure, to be honest. I try to stay out of things that sound like they could end in disaster.”

Theta, who was on the other side of the table by Koschei, raised an eyebrow. “You? Staying out of things that could end in a disaster? Sorry, could you remind me who it was that was trying to convince us all to be her lab rat? Because that sounds an awful lot like danger and an awful lot like you.”

“If you’re trying to offend me, then I’m sorry to say that you’ve failed.” She stood up and grabbed her bag from beneath the table. “Anyway, I’ve got to go get some things ready for our meeting tomorrow morning, so I’ll speak to you all tomorrow. Don’t be late, please. We’ve got a lot to go over this week.”

Koschei groaned after she was out of range. “Do you think she would notice if we didn’t show up tomorrow?” he asked, turning to look at Theta.

“Unfortunately, she notices everything. We trapped.”

“Ugh.” He too grabbed his bag from beneath the table. “I guess I’ll talk to you in the morning then too. I’m going to try to get some sleep before I have to wake up and listen to her shout at us about everything for an hour.”

Theta watched him go but didn’t follow. While Koschei may have needed his sleep, Theta needed his food, and he wasn’t quite ready to go yet.

//

Ushas was nearly ten minutes early to their meeting the next morning, and so it annoyed her that everyone else showed up at least a few minutes late. Even Millennia, who should have walked with her considering they were roommates, was over two minutes late arriving to the classroom. She knew that not everyone had heard her at dinner the previous night, but for those who had, did they choose to completely ignore her?

At eleven minutes past the hour, Theta and Koschei finally trudged into the room and filled up the last two vacant seats. (Technically there were plenty more seats, but only nine of them needed to be filled for the meeting to start. They weren’t about to invite a bunch of random people to their meeting just for the heck of it.) Ushas made sure to glare at them for a good amount of time before she finally retracted and returned her gaze to the rest of the room.

“My fellow members of the Deca,” she began, as if she was giving some sort of a presidential speech, “yesterday I began a mission that all of you should know about. I wanted to find myself a lab rat. Someone that I could rely on to help me with my experiments. But instead, what I learned is that none of you—not even one—cares about science. You all—”

“Sorry to interject,” said Jelpax, raising a finger. “I just wanted to mention that I, and probably several more of us, do care about science. I just happen to value my personal safety above whatever strange experiments you may be testing.”

“Someone who really cares about science would take the risk, but that’s beside the point. What I want to do today is give you all one last chance to be my lab rat. I have a final offer on the table, and it—”

Magnus shook his head. “No. Stop. Nobody agreed yesterday, and nobody is going to agree today. So just stop. Seriously. I don’t have the patience for this.”

“Fine, all right.” Ushas sighed and slapped her notes down onto the desk behind her. “We’ll come back to that. Does anyone else have anything that they’d like to talk about? Preferably not regarding rock, paper, shoes or whatever Mortimus was hassling us about at dinner last night.”

“Rock, paper, scissors,” he corrected her, “and I wasn’t hassling you, I was challenging you to a friendly game. What a rude thing to say to me.”

She ignored him. “So, any takers?”

“Absolutely.” Millennia raised a hand, then stood up, a slightly passive-aggressive smile on her face. “If I could ask Vansell to join me at the front of the room, please?”

Vansell kept one hand over his face when he looked up at her and shook his head, but ultimately followed her up to the front after a lengthy exchange involving several hand gestures that Ushas did not recognize. Millennia kept her smile all the way until they were ready at the front of the room, and Ushas was sitting comfortably in the front row.

“So,” she said, “I just wanted to make sure that you lot aren’t underestimating me for any reason. Something happened yesterday, and I’d rather not go into detail about it, but Vansell and Magnus did something very rude and very terrible to me.”

Rallon’s face fell and he glanced over at Magnus before returning his gaze to the front of the room, where he then glared at Vansell.

“I’m sorry to say that Magnus didn’t exactly get a proper punishment, as he managed to slip awau while I was pursuing Vansell, but I still wanted to show you exactly what I’ve done to him as my revenge.” She reached over and forced Vansell to lower the hand he kept over his eye, revealing a deep bruise on the side of his face. A quiet gasp echoed through the room after everyone saw it, and he returned his hand to its place. “That is from me hitting him with a mini muffin basket. Now, I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but I’m not proud of what he’s done either and I truly believe that he deserved the consequences to his actions.”

Ushas nodded approvingly, but no one else in the room spoke while she finished speaking and Vansell retreated back to his seat, his face flushed red. Millennia did a small curtsy—and an evil smile—before she returned to her seat and allowed Ushas to head back to the front of the room.

“I don’t know about you lot,” she said, “but I’ve been waiting a long time for Vansell to get his arse kicked, so that actually felt pretty good to see, not going to lie. That aside, does anyone else have anything to share?”

“I’d still like to know why you didn’t want me to be your lab rat,” Koschei commented. She glared at him in response.

“Next question.”

//

It would be an understatement to say that Ushas was surprised when Drax walked up to her once the meeting ended and most of their friends had left. He ushered Jelpax out of the room first, saying something about how he would catch up with him in a few minutes, then marched right up to the desk and stopped in front of her. She nearly asked him what he was doing but gave him the chance to speak first.

“I don’t want to seem like I’ve lost my mind,” he said, “but I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and I kind of wanted to apologize for yesterday.”

Of all the things he might have said, that was the only one that made her do a double take. “Excuse me?”

“You know. My behavior yesterday, when I shouted at you and forced you out of my room. That wasn’t exactly the nicest thing in the world, and I didn’t mean to upset you.” His expression suddenly turned to alarm, and he redacted his statement. “Not that I think you’re sensitive or anything, of course. It’s just that I can be a real dickhead sometimes, and I’m trying to stop doing that, so I’m sorry if I was being harsh yesterday. That really wasn’t my intention.”

“It’s all right.” Ushas shrugged. “I’m not angry at you, I was just a little bit concerned about your sudden change in mood. I know that you can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but you do it in different days and I just didn’t expect you to be doing that hours after you were acting like a goofball. So, I suppose, in that manner, I’m sorry too. But about much different things, obviously.”

He nodded. “You didn’t need to apologize. It’s my fault. I get weird sometimes. But anyway, this isn’t really what I wanted to talk to you about. See, like I said, I had a lot of time to think about this. I know I was a pretty adamant ‘no’ yesterday, but I did some thinking overnight and honestly, I think it might be kind of fun to be your lab rat. Dangerous? Sure. But what’s fun without danger?”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Her jaw dropped, her eyes widening as the full impact of his statement hit her. “Are you suggesting that you might actually be willing to be my lab rat?”

“No. I’m telling you flat out that I am absolutely willing to be your lab rat. We’ll have to come to some agreements, you know, but for the most part I think I’m in.”

Ushas broke into a huge grin and pulled him into a hug. While normally he was one to embrace the gesture, this one felt entirely unnatural and he returned it quite awkwardly. They pulled apart after a few seconds, leaving Ushas smiling, and Drax so uncomfortable that he wasn’t quite sure what to do, so he just stood there and waited for Ushas to break the awkward silence.

“Okay,” she said happily, “I’ll let you know as soon as I have something to test. I’m still trying to perfect that aloe fusion, so I’ll probably even give you a call later this week. Oh, this is just brilliant! Thank you so much, Drax. You’re truly a lifesaver.”

His face stayed blank while he watched her cheer and run out of the room. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but suddenly, Drax was wondering if he made a horrible decision.

Chapter Text

Drax groaned and rolled over in his bed. The lights came on far too early in the morning, and he wasn’t prepared for the brightness that suddenly flooded into his room. He yanked a pillow over his head to cover his eyes, then sat up abruptly when he heard someone walking around in their room. Drax flopped back down again upon realizing it was only Jelpax.

“Why are you up so early?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“I told you about this the other day,” Jelpax whispered. He pulled on a dark green polo and turned around to face his roommate. “Vansell and I are heading out to a gaming tournament for the weekend. Don’t you listen to a word I say?”

He shrugged. “I tend to zone out when I hear Vansell is involved.”

“Well, anyway, I have to get out of here in the next few minutes or he’ll kill me for being late. I’ll be back tomorrow night, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever.” Drax pulled the pillow back over his head and waved lamely. “See ya.”

Jelpax stared at him for only a moment before he grabbed his bag and disappeared out the door.

//

Theta spit out his cookie only seconds after it touched his lips. “Ew!” he exclaimed. “What kind of cookie is that? That was disgusting!”

Mortimus didn’t wait for permission before he took the rest of Theta’s dessert and slid them over to himself. He happily chomped down on the rest of the cookies from hell, while Theta tried to cleanse his palate with a carton of milk. Ushas, who was sitting beside him, grabbed her own carton of milk and waved it around in her hand.

“I can’t believe they would do that,” she said dramatically. She took an intense sip of her milk, dramatizing her every move. “Do you think that someone broke into the kitchen or something? I’m having such a hard time believing that the lunch lady would actually poison us.”

As soon as Theta caught on to what she was doing, he nodded eagerly. “It has to be. There’s no way that nice old woman would ever put that stuff into our cookies!”

“What? What stuff?” asked Mortimus. He lowered the cookie in his hand and set it back down onto his breakfast tray before swallowing hard. Up until that moment, his morning had been going incredibly well, and he had a hard time believing that something so horrible could ruin it so suddenly. “You’re not talking about the cookies, right? You’re talking about something in the news that I didn’t read about because I don’t read the news. The cookies aren’t poisoned.”

Ushas nodded glumly. “I can taste it. It’s all right, though. It’s not too serious a poison. It has a simple cure—milk—so if you just have a quick drink you should be totally fine.”

“I—I drank all of my milk. Can I have some of yours?” He looked back and forth between Ushas and Theta, his eyes wide.

“No.” Theta shook his head sadly. “We drank all of ours. And it looks like everyone else has too.”

“Oh, god.” Mortimus took a deep breath and pulled at his tight collar. “Okay. All right. I can fix this. I just need some milk. Oh, god. I need some milk.”

He stood up and started running around the dining hall, begging everyone and anyone to give him their milk. No one would comply, and Theta couldn’t stop laughing at the failures and the expressions they got on their faces whenever he tried to steal their cartons.

Ushas didn’t turn to look at Theta when she raised her hand, but she did grin when he gave her a high-five.

//

“No, seriously! It’s like, I didn’t even study at all, and yet somehow, I still managed to pass the test. I’m going to be able to slide through this class with no problem.”

Magnus let Koschei come up with a stupid response to Drax’s even dumber sentence, as he was too busy focusing on someone else to be attentive to his friend. Class had just been dismissed, which meant there were plenty of people in the hallway, but only one of them managed to catch his attention; a girl standing a ways behind and to the left of Drax, who was staring at him while biting her lip. Though he was no Millennia, even Magnus knew what that meant. He cut off Koschei mid-sentence to get his point across.

“Are you aware that the girl over there is staring at you?” he asked, nodding towards her.

Drax glanced over his shoulder, then shrugged. “I didn’t know she was staring at me right now, but yeah. I see her all the time. For a little while I thought I had a stalker, but then I realized we just have a few classes together, so I’m not too worried anymore. It’s fine.”

“Oh, come on, Drax.” Koschei nudged him teasingly. “Look at her! She totally fancies you.”

“What?” Despite how obvious it was, the expression on Drax’s face was nothing short of genuine confusion. “No, she doesn’t. Why would she like me? I don’t even know her.”

“That’s how crushes work sometimes, I guess. And who cares if you know her or not? Look at her. She’s cute. Worth a shot, yeah?”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

It would be a lie to say that Magnus was interested because he cared about Drax’s love life, but a spoiler to reveal what about it really piqued his interest. “You should go for it,” he said. “It’s not like you’re committing to anything, after all. We’re still young. You’ll have a fling for a few weeks and then it’ll be over. Plus, by the end of it she won’t be staring at you all the time, so it’s really a win-win either way.”

“Still no.” Drax shook his head. His face was slightly flushed pink, and he looked mildly uncomfortable. “I just— I really don’t want to go out with someone that I don’t know very well.”

Koschei raised an eyebrow. “Are you implying that you fancy someone that you do know?”

“What? No! That’s not what I said at all. Saying that I don’t want to go out with a stranger is not saying that I fancy someone else. I don’t.”

“Fair point,” said Magnus. “The only two girls he knows are Millennia and Ushas, and it would be almost criminal to accuse him of liking either of them.”

“Exactly.” Drax nodded and pointed at his friend. “Look, I’m not entirely opposed to dating someone that I don’t know. But the thing is, I just don’t like her that much. Whatever you two think is cute about her, I don’t see. I just see, you know, random blond with too much makeup.”

“I don’t think so.” Koschei crossed his arms and took one more inconspicuous look over at the girl. “I’ve heard people say that denial means it’s actually true, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case here.”

“Koschei, I literally do not know that girl’s name.”

“Again, you don’t need to know each other to fancy each other. Come on. Just admit she’s kind of cute.”

“Fine, okay. She’s…” Drax groaned and made an exaggerated gesture with his hands. “I can’t. I can’t do it. I just don’t understand what you’re seeing in her that I’m not. Honestly, I don’t even know what she is seeing in me. This is all too weird.”

“It would be less weird if you asked her out,” said Magnus, in the most annoyingly casual tone he could muster. “Like I said before, even if it doesn’t work out, she’ll stop staring at you if you just go out with her one time.”

He shook his head. “No. Nope. This isn’t happening. I’m— Nope. Not happening.”

Drax didn’t give Magnus nor Koschei time to call after him before he suddenly walked off down the hallway at a much faster pace than normal. He disappeared in mere seconds, leaving Koschei and Magnus alone with the cute girl, who had started talking to her friends. Koschei shrugged and turned to Magnus.

“Oh well,” he said. “We tried.”

“We’re not giving up yet,” Magnus’s gaze was still focused on the end of the hallway, where Drax had vanished. “Not until we get a firm answer.”

Koschei didn’t know what that meant but he was bored and liked meddling, so he agreed.

//

Jelpax was ready to leave before they even put on their nametags, and by the time they got through check-in, he was about ready to throw himself off a cliff. Vansell, on the other hand, seemed to be flourishing in the environment. He dragged Jelpax around left and right, but thankfully didn’t force him to speak to anyone (in fact, he was mostly dismissed as “Vansell’s teammate”, which almost annoyed him considering he was far better than Vansell).

If he wasn’t positive he was an introvert before, Jelpax confirmed that day. He grew tired of spending time around people on the ride there and standing in line was excruciating. Being in the crowds inside of the room was even more miserable, and multiple times he thought he might throw up just from the sheer amount of social interaction happening around him. Vansell was talking to someone about a new gaming console when Jelpax’s phone buzzed, and he reached down to check it.

KOSCHEI: heyy we’re trying to get drax to go out w/ a girl. any ideas?????

He was almost shocked. He’d only been gone for a few hours and they already started on some new scheme. He sighed and quickly typed out a message. Like any good best friend, he wasn’t about to let them pull any kind of prank with Drax as the recipient.

ME: yeah, actually. you could not?

Vansell nudged him and said something, but he ignored it. He might have been good at gaming, but he honestly didn’t care about it enough to justify an entire conversation with people he didn’t even know. Vansell took the hint and continued on his own.

KOSCHEI: come onnn

KOSCHEI: we’re not pranking him!!! some girl legit has a crush on him

KOSCHEI: plzz she’s super cute

Jelpax rolled his eyes. That was the last thing they could have said to convince him. He probably would have been more likely to go along with it if it actually was some kind of prank. He glanced up for a second, so as not to appear to disinterested in the tournament, then returned to his phone.

ME: I don’t care

ME: just leave him alone, okay?? he doesn’t do dates

Beside him, Jelpax could vaguely hear Vansell saying something about how they were going to destroy the competition, so he smiled and nodded as if he too believed that. It was likely that they were going to win, but he refused to get his hopes up. You never know who might show up at the tournaments.

Vansell dragged him around a bit more, and for once, he almost responded to a question that someone asked. Then his phone buzzed again, so he raised a finger to indicate that he needed a second before he could talk.

KOSCHEI: y tho? she cute

He genuinely wasn’t sure what to respond with. Although it was the last thing he was about to admit, Jelpax didn’t know why Drax wouldn’t go on dates. He had his suspicions and believed that it had something to do with his supposedly non-existent anxiety disorder, but in all honesty, that was another thing he couldn’t bring himself to ask about.

For the most part, Jelpax felt like he could talk to Drax about absolutely anything, but there were some topics that were off limits. Things that made Drax so wildly uncomfortable that he just didn’t have the heart to bring them up. Things like his family, his love life, and the fact that he exhibited several very clear indications of a serious anxiety disorder.

Jelpax honestly hated the fact that he couldn’t talk to Drax about any of those things, and constantly had to remind himself that it was a mutual failure of communication. He was too chicken to bring it up, and Drax refused to answer questions whenever he got the courage.

Vansell laughed and clapped Jelpax on the back, dragging him back to reality. “…this guy has gotten over twelve-thousand,” he said, humor still in his tone. He reached over and placed a hand on the random bloke’s shoulder. “You might as well just quit now, mate. It’s not worth the shame. Right, Jel?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

He rolled his eyes and grabbed onto Jelpax’s forearm, then dragged him away from the two idiots that he had been arguing with.

“Hey,” said Vansell aggressively, snapping his fingers in Jelpax’s face. “First match is in ten minutes. Wake up.”

Jelpax gave him a look. “I don’t need to be awake to win.”

As he followed Vansell off to the makeshift arena, he grabbed his phone and sent one last message to Koschei before turning his phone to silent.

ME: leave him alone. don’t text me again

//

Mortimus took a deep, shaking breath. He trudged down the hallway, his eyes downcast. Ushas had refused to tell him how long it was until the poison made its way to his heart, but he thought it was going to be soon. He was already having trouble breathing and felt more fatigued than ever. His vision was blurred as well, to the point where he didn’t see Rallon until he had already walked straight into him and knocked him over.

“Ow!” Rallon sat up and rubbed the side of his head. “Why did you do that?”

Millennia, who had been walking beside Rallon, interrupted before Mortimus had a chance to answer. “Are you okay, sweetie?” she asked. “You don’t look so good.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” As he stood up, Rallon realized that she was looking not at him, but at the person who knocked him over. “Oh, you meant… yeah.”

Mortimus, the person she was really talking to, shook his head. “No. Everything in my life is falling apart, Millennia. First my memory stopped working, and now I’ve been poisoned!”

“You’ve been what?” Were it anyone else, Millennia would have been shocked, but because it was Mortimus—the infamous liar—she was nothing more than skeptical? “What are you talking about, Mort?”

“The cookies that I had at breakfast this morning were poisoned.”

“What? No, they weren’t,” Rallon argued. He brushed himself off, then shook the floor gunk off his hands. “I ate like four of those and I feel totally fine.”

“Did you have milk too?”

“Yeah, why?”

Mortimus nodded sadly. “Ushas told me that the only known cure is milk, and I didn’t have any. I drank it before I ate the cookies, and by the time I found out what I had to do, the lunch lady was all out. Now the poison is slowly making its way into my hearts and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Honey, I’m pretty sure that Ushas was just messing with you,” said Millennia. She rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. “You’re going to be fine.”

“You don’t know that. I feel so terrible right now. I think—I think that she was actually telling the truth for once, Millennia. This—This is the end. Oh, god.”

Millennia didn’t have time to stop him before he tore off down the hall.

//

Drax wasn’t expecting anyone to try to talk to him while he worked on his homework. In fact, the entire reason he chose to do it outside with his earbuds in was because he thought that would keep anyone from bugging him. Clearly, he was wrong, because two pages into his work, Koschei and Magnus sat down on either side of him on the steps. He tried to ignore them at first, but at a certain point, Koschei poked his shoulder so many times that he couldn’t stand it anymore.

“What?” He practically ripped out his earbuds and set them in his lap.

“I’m glad you asked,” said Koschei. “Magnus and I have done our best, and it took some time, but we found something that might change your mind about that girl.”

Magnus ignored Drax’s annoyed expression and pulled up an image on his phone. “Her name is Ismisruglilmehe, or Ismis for short. This is her when she’s not wearing her robes.”

“Wow, she looks just like every other blond!” he exclaimed sarcastically. “I’m so attracted to her now!”

“Well, we weren’t going to show you this one, but I guess we have no choice now.” Magnus pulled his phone back and swiped right. “This one is a little racier, but…”

“Oh, god!” Drax barely had time to take in the image of Ismis wearing a bikini before he shoved the phone away. “Holy fuck, Magnus. What are you trying to do to me?”

“That’s confidential.”

Koschei frowned and took the phone from Magnus. “You didn’t like this picture? It’s so hot, though. Like, if I wasn’t already trying to set her up with you, and I didn’t think Theta would burn me alive, I’d totally go out with Ismis. Wow.”

“So then why don’t you just ask her out?” said Drax. He pushed his bangs out of his eyes, then yanked the sleeves of his black and white sweater over his hands. “I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not interested, and you’ve made it pretty clear that you are, so just change course on this, all right? I’m sure she’d go out with you. She might think I’m cute, but believe me, there’s nothing but ribs under here. At least you have abs.”

“True,” he nodded slowly, “but that’s beside the point. We’re doing this to help you. You seem to have some kind of fear when it comes to talking to women, and you need to fix that.”

“I’m not afraid of talking to women. I have like, three friends who are girls.”

Magnus whipped his head around so fast that his hair slammed into the side of his face. “Three? Who’s the third?”

“Just… this girl I met when we went to the Medusa Cascade a while back.” Drax didn’t sound embarrassed, but rather confused. “Who cares? I barely even talk to her anyway.”

“You won’t go out with Ismis because you like this other girl,” said Koschei. “Right?”

“No! I don’t like anyone, and I definitely wouldn’t go out with this other girl. She’s an Arcalian, so…”

“Oh, ew.” His scrunched his face up. “Sorry, I made a bad call. Okay, let’s go back to Ismis, the adequately wealthy and probably much hotter Prydonian who definitely has a crush on you.”

Drax nodded. “I’m actually more comfortable with that and I’m not comfortable with any of this at all.”

“Well, you’re comfortable with it at least a little bit since it’s possible for you to be more comfortable with that,” said Magnus. “But that’s beside the point. Let’s talk about how you’re going to ask Ismis to go out with you.”

“I’m not going to ask Ismis to go out with me! What is wrong with you two?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Koschei countered. “She is ridiculously hot, and you don’t fancy her at all? I think you’re more blind than you let on.”

He frowned. “I’m not blind at all. I think you have me confused with Jelpax. Also, just because you think that she’s hot doesn’t mean that I have to think she’s hot. People have different types. I don’t like blonds.”

“Interesting.”

“It’s not interesting at all,” said Drax. He gripped onto the edge of his sleeves, curling his fingers into tight fists. He didn’t appear to be angry, but tense. “Why do you guys care about this so much? Seriously. Just leave me alone. Please. If I decide I want to go out with her then I will, but I’m not going to do it because you tell me to. That’s not a healthy start to any kind of relationship.”

Magnus shrugged. “Who cares about healthy? What’s not healthy is you continuing to run away from every girl who’s remotely interested in you. I’m going to figure this out one way or another, I swear.”

With that, he stood up and ran back up the stairs. Koschei said a quick “bye” to Drax before following him close behind. Once they had gone back into the building, Drax placed his earbuds back in, adjusted the notebook on his lap, and dropped his head into his hands.

//

“Yes! Ha! Eat that, suckers!”

Jelpax returned the high-five much less enthusiastically than Vansell delivered it. Still, he was happy that the first round was over—it had lasted nearly two hours—and that they were one of the top teams to survive it. Not the top team, but they were still going to go to the next round that afternoon, which was good enough for him. It wasn’t good enough for Vansell, however, who slapped him across the shoulder once they were able to step out of sight.

“What were you doing?” he snapped. “I’ve seen you do so much better than that before. This is the time to be a badass, Jel. Not when we’re practicing and I’m your only opponent. Now.”

“Yeah, I know.” Jelpax rolled his eyes and took a sip out of his water bottle. “I’ll pull it back in the next round, all right? We were still top three.”

“That’s not good enough, losers.” Some nerd with frosted tips and chunky bright purple glasses made an ‘L’ shape on his forehead, smirking as he came to a stop in front of them. “My team is going to destroy you in the next round. You won’t last until tomorrow.”

Vansell snorted. “That’s what you think,” he said. “You’re only saying that because you have no idea what Jelpax is capable of. He let you lot off easy this time. Now fuck off, you idiot.”

Frosted Tips smiled smugly again, then crossed his arms and walked away. Vansell glared at him the whole way out of the room, before turning around to slap Jelpax once more. “Dammit! Look what you did, Jel. Now that guy thinks he’s better than us.”

“Who cares?” Jelpax shrugged and flopped down into one of the plush seats near them. Although he wasn’t in the best mood, he had to admit that the building was pretty nice. It had dark wooden floors, spacey walls, and fluffy purple chairs that were so comfortable he actually considered stealing one. The only problem was that the lighting was dreadful, which didn’t help at all with his already terrible eyesight.

“I cares!” Vansell exclaimed, before making a face. “Care. I care. Not… never mind, stop giving me that look. Just rest up for a bit. Do your hand stretches. We’re back on in an hour. I’m going to go scope out the other teams.”

Jelpax waved lamely but didn’t bother to actually say anything before Vansell left the room. He was tired of listening to the endless chattering in the building, and was almost tempted to just up and leave, but he forced himself to stay. As much as he hated the environment, it felt wrong to abandon his friend. So instead, Jelpax resorted to doing what he had been told to and started to go through his hand stretches (also known as a routine he had come up with to prevent his wrists and fingers from locking up during long matches).

He was halfway through his stretches when he suddenly realized that his phone was still set to silent. He didn’t expect anyone to message him but figured he would check just to be safe. He was glad that he did, even though the message he received was not particularly cheery.

DRAX: any chance u lost the first round and get 2 come home now??

ME: unfortunately, no. standing in top 3 right now.

ME: everything ok?

He didn’t get an answer right away, but it wasn’t surprising considering Drax had sent the original message nearly an hour beforehand. Jelpax tried to resume stretching, but before he managed to do even one more, someone else walked up to him and demanded small talk—his greatest weakness.

The guy who spoke to him actually wasn’t that horrible, and they were getting into a decent bit of conversation when Jelpax’s phone buzzed again. He held up a finger to put their discussion on hold, then whipped it out and read the message.

DRAX: yeah, fine. pranks just starting to annoy me

DRAX: don’t worry tho, i got a plan

DRAX: have fun defeating everyone

Jelpax smiled to himself and shut off his screen. If he was still willing to pull pranks back, everything must have still been somewhat okay. Knowing that his best friend was all right, Jelpax managed to make it through the rest of the conversation with the guy. Though he was still feeling ready to go home, it wasn’t all that terrible.

Time flew by all too quickly, however, and before he knew what was happening, Vansell came to collect him for the next round. Part of him still wanted to head home, but the determined half took over and he was ready to destroy the other competitors, no matter what it took.

//

“I’ve collected a lot of things over the years and it doesn’t feel right that I would just leave them here.”

“No, of course not.” Ushas nodded sympathetically. Her entire prank had come as a spur of the moment joke, but she was truly falling in love the further it went. Even though it had led them into Mortimus’s disgusting bedroom. “You should definitely, definitely write out a will.”

Theta, who was sitting at Mortimus’s desk, made a face. “That might not be the best idea,” he said, looking at the mess around him. “You don’t want to waste the rest of your time trying to figure out what the hell you even have in here.”

“Another good point,” Mortimus agreed. He stopped pacing for a moment, his eyes darting all around as if he was deep in thought. “I think what I’m going to do is just leave all of my stuff to one person. The person that I care about the most.”

“Or the person you hate the most, because I really don’t think that anyone wants to be burdened with all of your shit. But you know, do whatever you want. I’m not going to tell you what to do with your stuff when you’re gone.”

“You literally just did.”

Theta lifted his hand off the desk, then wiped a sticky substance onto the back of his chair. “No, I was just making a suggestion.”

“All right, boys. Let’s not argue about this, yeah?” Ushas, who was sitting at Magnus’s desk on the clean side of the room, stood up and waved her hands in a reassuring gesture. “We all need to stay calm so we can figure out what to do with Mortimus’s stuff. We have to make sure that the burden is placed on the best person.”

“Burden? Guys, my stuff isn’t that bad…”

Ushas blinked. “You’re standing in a bowl of macaroni and cheese.”

“Point taken.” He nodded and took a step away, then pulled his socks off and tossed them into a similar pile of garbage. “Anyone want to help me figure out what to do with this stuff?”

And even though Theta had hoped to do something more productive on his days off, he agreed. Nothing could be better—or more fun—than pranking the most gullible person in the world.

//

Drax was feeling pretty good after lunch the next day. His friends had stopped harassing him about Ismis, and he had messaged Jelpax several times over the course of the day. Apparently, he was doing quite well in the tournament, but he was fed up with all the people there, which was understandable. Jelpax had never been the most social guy in the world.

Because he was feeling so great that day, Drax threw caution to the wind and decided to go for a walk for once. He put in his earbuds, turned on a catchy tune, and jammed along as he walked down the hallway (he also tried and failed to mouth the lyrics, as he didn’t remember any of them). That was a normal enough action, but the thing out of the ordinary was the fact that he was walking to his locker to get the homework he left behind a few days earlier.

He hadn’t finished inputting his locker combination before the one beside his slammed open and Koschei squished out of it. Drax ripped his earbuds out at lightning speed and let out a yelp.

“What the fuck, Koschei?!” he shouted. “What are you— oh, my god! That’s not even your locker!”

Koschei shrugged and closed it casually, as if he had just stumbled out of any ordinary door. “While that may be true, it’s far beside my point. I’m not here to discuss my reasons behind hiding in a locker. I’m here to talk about you. More specifically, how I can help you.”

“We’ve discussed this before, haven’t we? You can’t help me. Just please leave me alone unless I specifically ask you for something.”

“No can do, mate,” said Koschei. He pushed back his messed up black hair and brushed the dust off his jacket. “I’ve got an offer that you cannot refuse. Come with me now or you’ll regret it. And maybe fluff up your hair a bit and take off that rubber band. That looks a bit weird, don’t you think?”

Drax furrowed his brow. “No. It looks normal. I always have a rubber band there. Why are you acting weird?”

“Why are you acting weird?”

“I’m not acting weird. You’re acting weird.”

Koschei sighed. “It’s a secret,” he replied. “I can’t divulge the information yet, I’m afraid. Just come on.”

He grabbed Drax by the wrist and dragged him down the hallway, ignoring the stares from passerby as they walked by. Drax was slightly afraid of what was about to happen, but his curiosity got the better of him and he allowed himself to be pulled around by his friend.

It would be an understatement to say that he was confused when they arrived at their destination. Koschei brought him to a halt outside of he and Theta’s dorm room, then pushed a hand through his bangs, stole the rubber band right off his wrist, and shoved him into the room.

The inside of the dorm looked nothing like normal either, with the lights dimmed, and a collapsible table pushed into the middle of the room. It had a fancy tablecloth draped over it, and a pile of muffins in the middle. Sitting at the two chairs—Theta and Koschei’s desk chairs, nonetheless—were Magnus and Ismis.

“Oh, there he is now!” said Magnus. He walked over to Drax, who was standing in the doorway in shock, then dragged him over to the table and plopped him down before making a run for it. “See you later!”

Drax stood up to go after him, but Magnus yanked the door shut and disappeared before he could stop him. He tried the handle, but it wouldn’t pull down, and Drax knew they had some kind of contraption blocking the other side of it.

“Hey,” said Ismis. “Is everything okay?”

His hearts were already pounding when he turned around to look at her, and he nearly gasped when he saw what she was wearing. Or rather, what she wasn’t wearing. The fancy pink dress she had chosen lacked a bit of fabric in the front, revealing… certain things, and Drax had to turn his gaze upwards to avoid feeling like a pervert. He also suddenly felt very awkward in his own clothes, otherwise known as black skinny jeans, black trainers, and a slightly oversized purple shirt. He tugged on his own shirt a bit—she probably didn’t want to see his disgusting collarbone any more than he wanted to see… the parts that she was exposing.

“I think there may have been a bit of a misunderstanding here,” Drax answered awkwardly. His hearts beat hard against his chest, and he had to take a deep breath to keep his voice from shaking. “I never asked you out.”

“Yeah, I know.” Ismis walked over to him and smiled. “Magnus said that you were too shy, so he asked for you.”

His eyes widened. “No. No, I wasn’t too shy. This isn’t—”

“Come on.” She grabbed onto his hands and pulled him over to the table. Despite his instincts, he managed to not yank away until she sat down. Ismis smiled at Drax as he took a seat at the other side of the table uncomfortably. “You don’t have to be all awkward now, hon. I know this is a little weird, me surprising you with a date, but it’s fun. Really. Look, we even have muffins!”

Ismis took a bite and made a sound to show him how delicious they were, but Drax didn’t reach forward to take one. He felt so sick to his stomach that just looking at them made him want to throw up.

“Really, I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”

“It’s okay,” she said, a smile on her face. “I know you’re new to this whole thing, Magnus told me. But I’ve been on a few dates before and I can help you through it, okay?”

Drax reached down to snap at the rubber band on his wrist, to gain any sort of grounding or familiarity, but it wasn’t there. He dug his nails into his wrist instead. “Look, I’m not trying to be an asshole, okay? You’re really pretty, and I’m sure that someday you’ll—”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve always thought you were really pretty too.”

“I’m really not comfortable with you saying that to me.”

She frowned. “Why are you acting like you’re not into me?” asked Ismis. “Magnus said you really wanted to go on this date and now you’re being so weird.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. They—” Drax cut himself off. “Let’s just start over, okay? As long as we’re stuck in here, we might as well try to be friends.”

“Friends or more than that? Because I was under the impression that I was here for a date, not a bonding exercise.” She pushed the muffin basket to the side and leaned over the table. She reached one hand over to him and placed a hand on the side of his head. “I know we haven’t talked a lot, but you have a magnetism to you that is just perfect. You and I, we could be amazing.”

Drax leapt out of his seat when she moved her hand down his shoulder and landed on his chest. “I’m sorry,” he said. At that point he didn’t feel like he should be the one apologizing anymore, but he couldn’t kill the urge. “I just— I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”

He took a step back, unable to stop himself from shaking. He pressed his fingers deeper into his wrist, wishing he could replicate the grounding and satisfaction he gained from his rubber band. It didn’t work.

Ismis rolled her eyes, then walked over to the door and pounded on it. “Magnus?” she shouted. “Open up!”

“It hasn’t been an hour yet!” he called back.

“This ‘date’ is over. Let me out or I’ll tell the Headmaster that you locked me in here.”

Magnus groaned loudly and opened the door. Drax watched Ismis run out but found himself unable to move from his place near Theta’s desk. He felt faint and sick to his stomach, his vision was blurry—possibly from tears—and the entire world seemed to be spinning. His lungs were burning, and no matter how many breaths he took, nothing seemed to stop the pain. He suddenly regained the ability to speak when Koschei stopped in front of him, Magnus only a few feet behind.

“Drax, are you okay?” asked Koschei. His tone seemed genuinely concerned, despite what he’d done.

“I told you ‘no’!” Drax shouted. It took everything he had, and he inhaled another deep breath of air to use for his next words. “I told you 'no' and you just— you went and you fucking did it anyway!”

Before Koschei could respond, Magnus took a step forward. “Hey, you’re all right. Wait, what the— are you bleeding?” He reached out for Drax’s arm, but he yanked away and took a step back.

“Don’t touch me!” He couldn’t feel the blood on his arm, and he didn’t want to look down. He couldn’t bring himself to see the damage he had inflicted. “Don’t fucking— just— why would you do this? I told you I didn’t like her. I said ‘no’ and you fucking asked her out anyway. And then you trapped me in here! Why would you— why would you do that? You’re the worst fucking friends ever!”

“Hey, I think you need to go see the nurse.”

“No! I’m not going to see the nurse. I’m fine. I just— I need to get away from you guys.”

“Drax, wait!” Koschei tried to chase after him when he ran out the door, but Magnus put a hand on his shoulder to hold him back.

“I think it’s probably best that we just leave him be now, Koschei. We’ve done enough.”

//

Jelpax was about ready to destroy Frosted Tips by the time they made it to the final match. He could hardly believe that the idiot actually managed to make it so far, considering he had practically no skills in the battlefield, but his partner carried him through the game, and they managed to make it to the end; competing against Jelpax and Vansell. Normally, Jelpax wanted to crush the competition for the satisfaction of winning, but not that day. No, he wanted to defeat Frosted Tips just because he was a self-absorbed, totally oblivious, incredibly stupid little prick. Not to mention his asshole teammate, Flame Boy (nickname based on his fiery red, spiked-up hair).

“Are you ready to win this?” asked Vansell. He rolled his shoulders back, preparing for the battle of a lifetime. Or at least, that weekend. “We’re going to destroy those idiots one by one.”

“There are literally only two of them,” Jelpax replied, “but yes. I am ready to destroy the two idiots who are left. The prize money is ours, as will be the satisfaction.”

“Right. Let’s do this.”

They were incredibly over-confident walking into the makeshift arena, but it didn’t matter. Vansell knew as a fact that they were going to win, as did Jelpax. There was no way that some idiot with frosted tips and a cocky attitude was going to beat them and their insane skills. Still, the guy somehow looked confident, and he smiled smugly when he sat down across from them. Flame Boy seemed indifferent to the situation and ignored Jelpax and Vansell when he took his own seat.

The match started off normal. Everyone gathered their weapons, found their stakeout points, and Frosted Tips made some stupid faces while thinking about what he should do (Jelpax had identified his planning face ages earlier). Jelpax headed into one of his best hiding places, dropped a few land mines, and got ready for the ultimate battle.

Frosted Tips stepped on one of them almost immediately after the match started, which took him down instantly. Jelpax thought that was likely a fluke, but every round after that followed a similar pattern, and before he knew what was happening, him and Vansell won the game. Flame Boy didn’t seem too bothered, and shook both of their hands, but Frosted Tips threw a fit like a stupid little time tot. Jelpax chose not to listen to most of what he said, while Vansell responded to all of it with cocky remarks.

“It’s not fair!” Frosted Tips shouted. “He planted too many mines! Hacks!”

Jelpax raised an eyebrow. “I planted one. One. You just had bad luck.”

“You suck!”

“Okay.” He turned around to look at Vansell. “You ready to go?”

Vansell shot one last smug grin to the losing team. “Yeah, let’s get our prize and get the hell out of here.”

//

Mortimus stabbed his shovel into the ground after he finished scooping the last of bit of dirt. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, then placed his hands on his hips and looked over at the friends, who were standing off to the side watching his every move. The three of them stared back at him, their expressions all different. Ushas looked remorseful, Theta almost humorous, and Magnus just seemed to be kind of confused. Mortimus didn’t quite understand why he was so puzzled, but he didn’t ask. He figured it would all come together for him in a few minutes.

“Thank you all for gathering here,” he said glumly. “As you all know by now, I’ve been poisoned, and there is no cure. I survived through the night, but I doubt I’ll make it through this one, so I’ve decided to just go ahead and put myself out of my misery. That is why, as you can see here, I have dug my own grave. Tonight, this is where I will sleep. But not before I share with you my last wishes.”

“Wait, what?” Magnus looked at the people on either side of him. “Guys, what the hell did you do?”

Theta raised a finger to his lips and shook his head, then nodded towards Mortimus. Magnus rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and turned his attention back to his roommate, one eyebrow raised skeptically. He’d been suspicious when he was initially invited into the woods, and obviously it was for good reason.

“First off, I’d like to thank those of you who helped me during my final hours,” Mortimus went on. “Ushas, Theta, thank you so much for being there for me in my time of need. If I come back as a friendly ghost, you’ll be the ones that I come to see first.”

“Please don’t,” said Ushas.

He gave her a sympathetic look. “I know it’s hard to take this in right now, but we all have to be strong. Now, you two remember what we were working on yesterday, right? Well, I’ve decided who I’m going to leave all my possessions to. Magnus, that’s why I invited you. My stuff is your stuff now. You’re welcome.”

“What the fuck?” Magnus gaped. “How much do you hate me?”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m leaving you all of my stuff. Are you crazy?” Mortimus looked more sad than offended, but his expression was still a mixture of both. “Look, I thought this through really well, so just please take my stuff? If you don’t want some of it you can throw it away, but that’s really not my problem anymore. It’s my time. Farewell, friends.”

Mortimus grabbed his shovel and attempted to drag some dirt over his head, prompting his friends to all shout at him.

“What are you doing?!” Ushas screeched. “You can’t bury yourself alive, Mortimus!”

“Why not? I always thought it would be cool to be the one to bury myself and now I’ve been given the opportunity. This is what I want.”

He tried again, and Theta lunged forwards to stop him. “For god’s sake, Mort! We were messing with you. You aren’t poisoned. Please don’t bury yourself!”

“Wait, what?” Mortimus dropped his shovel onto the ground beside him and looked up at his friends, a shocked expression on his face. “You lied to me?”

“It was more of a prank. And to be fair, it was very funny. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how gullible you really are.”

“God.” He groaned and slapped one dirt-covered face onto his forehead. “I can’t believe I fell for this again. Why do you guys always do this to me? It’s really not nice. It’s funny, I have to admit, but it’s not nice! Never mind, you can tell me once I get out of here.” His eyes went wide. “Oh, no.”

“It’s just occurred to you that you’re standing in a hole twelve feet deep, hasn’t it?” said Magnus. Mortimus only nodded in response, to which he sighed. “Yeah, I don’t want to deal with this. You guys can get him out.”

“Wait, no!” Theta cried. He ran to go after Magnus. “Don’t leave us here! You’re so much stronger than us!”

He shrugged. “Find a winch.”

“What have we done?” He walked back over to Ushas and looked down into the hole that Mortimus was trapped in.

Ushas gave him a look. “What we always do. Something that seemed like good fun but turned out to be a disaster. It’s nothing new, Thete. Nothing new at all.”

And even though he hated to fess up to his constant failure, he had to admit that she was telling the truth.

//

To say that Koschei felt bad about what happened would be a gross understatement.

It all started as some innocent teasing, and he didn’t expect it to escalate as quickly as it had. Drax was almost always a good sport about their pranks and jokes, so he hadn’t thought anything so bad would happen, but it did. Something he always said about the Deca was that he had seen them all not just at their best, but their worst as well. Then he went ahead and proved that entire statement to be false, because he had never seen anything like that before—especially not from happy-go-lucky Drax.

Koschei almost wanted to go after him right away, but he didn’t think that would be the best choice, so he left Drax alone for a while before he finally sought him out. On his way around the Academy he found out that Drax had not gone to see the nurse, which was unsurprising but still concerning. When Koschei had last seen his friend, he was bleeding and couldn’t manage to get enough air into his lungs to properly speak.

And, of course, it was all his fault.

He knocked on Drax’s door before he tried the handle, but when he didn’t get an answer, he made the decision to walk into the room. He was pleased to find that Drax was in there, but after assessing the state he was in, he felt even worse. His friend was sitting on his bed with his shoes off, his face still bright pink, and a length of dull white gauze wrapped around his wrist. He was staring down at his hands, so it was difficult to see the exact expression on his face, but the light beside him illuminated the shining tears.

“Hey,” said Koschei. He wet his lips to fill the gap before he figured out what to say. “I just wanted to—”

“This really isn’t a good time,” Drax interrupted. He didn’t look up but dragged his finger around the gauze on his opposite wrist. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I just— I just got some really bad news, which is like a cherry on top for this shit day, you know? And I know what you want, but I can’t talk about what happened because I know that you have a lot of questions and I can’t answer those questions. So just… please just go.”

Koschei closed the door behind him and took a step forward. “No, I don’t want to ask questions. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t know that it was going to turn out so badly.” Drax shrugged and didn’t say anything. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. That’s why I’m having a meltdown right now. Everything is just fucking peachy.”

Though he wasn’t sure whether it was the right thing to worry about, Koschei was more than slightly alarmed how easily Drax admitted to being upset. Despite his well-known mood swings, he almost always denied being emotional, and never talked to anyone (aside from Jelpax, of course) when he was distressed.

“I’m sorry, that was a really stupid thing to ask.” He sat down on the edge of Drax’s bed and turned to look at him. “I know that you said you don’t want to talk about it, but I just have to know… was it Ismis? Did she do that?”

Drax turned his wrist over and shook his head. “No, you did that.”

It took Koschei more than a few seconds to understand his meaning, and when he did, he felt even worse still. He seriously deserved to win the worst friend of the year award. “I am so, so sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He ran a hand over his eyes and looked up for a second, then blinked and turned his glance downward again. “Sorry, I can’t look at you that close right now. Anyway, it’s not really your fault. I mean, you did go against what I said. I asked you not to and you did, and I’m still pissed at you for that but you didn’t— you didn’t know about…”

He cut himself off when his phone buzzed, then reached over to check it. He held his arm out a few feet away from his face to do so, but at an angle that Koschei still couldn’t see. After he saw whatever had popped up, he threw his phone across the room and ran another hand down his face to clear the fresh tears that spilled down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this right now.”

Koschei put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s fine. I’m not— I wasn’t pressuring you to talk about it. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry.”

“I know, and it’s really not your fault.” Drax blinked several times, then wiped his sleeve over his eyes. “It’s because of me. It’s my problem. You were just trying to do a nice thing and I freaked out about it. I do that. I’m not good enough, Koschei. Why can’t I ever just be good enough? Everything I do and it’s just fucking… it’s never enough.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re not talking about the date?”

“I just can’t do this anymore. I do everything that I can and I’m still not good enough,” he babbled, his voice cracking through each word. He let the tears fall freely down his cheeks this time. “I just don’t understand why nobody can accept that. I’m not good enough, and I’m never going to be as intelligent as people want me to, and I don’t even understand why I have to be. I’m not smart! I’m just stupid, fucked up me, and I can’t— I can’t do everything that she wants. I can’t be who she wants me to be.”

Before Koschei had the chance to try and make sense of what he said, the door slid open and Jelpax walked into the room. He looked pleased when he first walked in, but his face fell, and his entire body sagged when he laid eyes on his best friend. He dropped his bag at the door, his gaze frozen on Drax, who looked up at him and blinked through his tears. He grabbed Drax’s glasses off the table near the door before anything else, then walked over and slid them onto his face just before he wrapped his arms around him. Drax, who had been so opposed to touch only hours before, practically clung to him and dropped his head onto his shoulder.

“I don’t understand why you don’t just put them on right when you take your contacts out,” Jelpax whispered.

Drax didn’t look up. “They were all the way on the other side of the room.”

He didn’t laugh but looked slightly relieved when he turned to look at Koschei (who was somewhat preoccupied trying to decipher how Jelpax knew that Drax had taken his contacts out). “I told you not to,” he mouthed.

“This wasn’t all us.” Half of Koschei’s phrase was made up of hand movements. He pointed over to Drax’s phone, which was lying shattered on the other side of the room. Jelpax sighed then nodded towards the door, gesturing for him to leave. Koschei started to go but stopped near the door when he heard Drax speak again.

“Sorry, I’m really fucking up your day, yeah?” Drax seemed to have already forgotten that Koschei was there, and even when he pulled away from Jelpax, didn’t acknowledge his presence on the other side of the room.

Jelpax shook his head. “No, no, no—”

“Did you win?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry about that. I don’t want to talk about that right now.” He reached forwards and pushed Drax’s hair out of his face, then used his thumb to gently brush away his fresh tears. “Tell me what happened. What did you do to your wrist?”

Koschei, not wanting to relive what he had done, took that as his cue to leave and slipped out of the door as quietly as he could.

//

“…so, it turns out, as you could probably guess, I’m not actually dying. I am, however, cursed as of now. It looks like I’m going to have dirt between my toes for the rest of my life. And in my ears too. It’s really starting to get annoying. Great idea about the shovel though, Thete. Without you, I would probably still be standing in that hole now. Oh, I forgot to talk about the hole! So, guys…”

Ushas was beginning to regret the fact that she allowed Mortimus to explain what happened. He’d been standing up at the front of the room for nearly half the duration of their meeting at that point, and she was growing incredibly tired of it. He exaggerated everything, to the point where she spent just as much time correcting what he said as he spent actually saying it.

In the third row, Koschei was also bored listening to Mortimus. It was a funny story, sure, but Theta had already told him all about it. He leaned over and nudged Drax in the shoulder. Drax looked up from his phone, then turned the screen off quickly, but kept a tight grip on it in one hand. “What?” he snapped, keeping his voice low so as not to alert Ushas.

“I thought you broke that.”

“I’m an engineer, dumbass. I fixed it.” He turned his gaze back to his phone and waved a hand to motion for Koschei to go away.

“…anyway, then I got out of the hole, and now there’s no hole anymore because of the small avalanche I created while climbing out,” Mortimus concluded. “I’d be happy to show it to you guys if any of you want to come check it out after our meeting. It’s just a ways into the woods.”

“I’m eating breakfast after our meeting,” said Magnus, “but thanks for the offer. Wait, no. No thanks.”

Mortimus’ shoulders sagged. “You’re mean. I’m not going to leave you my stuff anymore.”

“Thank god.”

He sighed and headed back into his seat, at which point Ushas turned around where she sat and asked if anyone else wanted to come up and talk. Vansell raised his hand and headed up to the front of the room, a smug smile on his face. He crossed his arms as if it made him appear more macho or something and surveyed the room before he spoke.

“Right now, you probably think you’re just looking at your boring friend,” he said, “but you’re not. I—well, and Jelpax—am the new regional champion at Destination Z. For people who said that gaming is stupid—Ushas—it’s time for me to prove you wrong. Jelpax and I won a combined total of… a lot of money. Just from that two-day thing. So, if you think that this is a stupid hobby, you’re wrong. You’re all wrong.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Ushas glanced around the room as he continued bragging, searching for someone else to invite to the front of the room. When her eyes landed on Koschei, he shook his head urgently and flicked a hand in front of his neck. He caught her attention and repeated the motion when she looked over at Drax, who was staring down at his wrist and messing with his newest rubber band. “Uh, Rallon, Millennia? Any chance you’re interested in talking about where you’ve been?”

“I’m not finished yet,” said Vansell.

“Really? No one’s interested in your bragging, Van. Jelpax won too but you don’t see him up there gloating about it. Go sit back down.” She waved him away, then turned her attention back to Rallon and Millennia. “Anyway, what have you two been doing the last few days? I feel like I’ve hardly seen you at all.”

“There are ten of us,” Magnus interrupted. “How much time do you really spend with us all?”

She rolled her eyes and gestured for Millennia to speak. “We haven’t been up to anything that interesting,” she said, not bothering to go up to the front of the room like the others had. “Not compared to the kind of stuff all of you lot have been doing, at least. Rallon and I were just hanging out, spending some time getting to know each other better.”

“Yeah, it probably sounds dull to you lot, but I thought it was rather fun,” Rallon added gleefully. He looked almost overjoyed, and Koschei wondered if they were attending the same meeting.

Magnus kicked his feet onto the empty desk in front of him. “Well, we’ll be the judge of that. What did you do? Games? Food? Something else ridiculously tacky? Never mind. Let me speak real quick because I have to let you all know this before I lose my mind.” He crossed his arms and nodded towards the person sitting a few desks away from him. “Drax is gay.”

What?!” The person who spoke was none other than Drax himself. He nearly knocked his desk over when he whipped around to look at Magnus. “I am not gay.”

“Yes, you are. I’m really not even trying to be a dickhead for once. Based on the last two days, final moments aside because I can’t blame you for that, you’ve convinced me. Honestly. Say what you want, but at this point, I’m like ninety-eight percent sure that you’re gay.”

Drax rolled his eyes. “Just because I didn’t want to go out with a stranger doesn’t mean that I’m gay.”

“You looked like you were going to throw up when I showed you that picture of Ismis in a bikini.”

“I was trying not to be a perv.”

“You were alone with your guy friends, looking at a public image she shared,” he deadpanned. “That’s the one time you’re literally encouraged to be a perv.”

“For the record,” said Koschei, “I don’t encourage that. I just happened to be there.”

“I honestly don’t care,” Ushas snapped, cutting them all off. Magnus looked ready to continue, while Drax leaned back and snapped at his rubber band. “Can we just get back to Millennia and Rallon? You didn’t even give them a chance to finish.”

“Thank you, Ushas.” Rallon smiled. “Anyway, I was telling her this funny story about my dad, so she was showing me this photo album she has of pictures with her and her mum.”

Jelpax was almost certain he was the only person to notice that Drax tensed up at the mention of the last word.

“Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but it was really wonderful,” Millennia added. “I don’t get to see my mum much, since she works so much, she’s hardly home even on vacation days. She’s really fun though. I showed Rallon this one hilarious video from when I was little, where we were like, fake wrestling ‘cause of this thing my brother liked, and at one point she pretended she was going to hit me, so I—”

Drax shoved his chair back loudly, cutting off her story. He grabbed his backpack from off the floor beside him, swung it over his shoulder, and headed straight out of the room, refusing to meet eyes with anyone on the way. Jelpax didn’t hesitate before going after him, nearly knocking over his own chair in his rush.

Ushas waited until they were gone before she turned back to Millennia. “You were saying?”

Chapter Text

“Kay never believed in the ghost stories that people told about the lakes. ‘They were all nonsense’, he would say. There was no way there were any kind of creatures living in the lake! People were probably just trying to keep him away from there so that he wouldn’t be able to fish, insert reason why here. I mean— uh, the government had outlawed fishing. Or, no. Wait. That doesn’t make sense. His friends were just, uh, they worked for PETA or something. I don’t know.

“Anyway, Kay went out to the lake one night and tossed his fishing string into the water. It took a few minutes to get a catch, but when he did, he was overjoyed. He struggled to pull it to the surface, and grunted with pain as his arm was stretched back.

“‘Ow!’ he said. ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’

“It took him nearly an hour to reel in the creature. When he finally dragged it to the surface of the water, Kay was met with the most beautiful hazel eyes he had ever seen. The evil creatures in the water were not evil creatures at all! It was a beautiful merman with dark blond hair, and chub where muscles should— Van, that’s kind of rude. Never mind.

“He looked up at Kay with the bright, wide eyes of a little kid and gave him the most friendliest smile. ‘Hi,’ he said, ‘I’m Theta.’

“Kay held out a hand to pull him into his boat. ‘I’m Koschei,’ he said, using his real name to seem cooler. He—”

 

“Guys, what the hell?”

The entire room froze after Koschei spoke up, and Rallon ceased telling his story. “What?”

“That was the dumbest story I’ve ever heard!” Koschei exclaimed. He slammed his hands down against his desk. “Why are you writing about us? We’ve been over this, you idiots. Stop shipping us!”

“Okay, fine.” Vansell sighed and crossed his arms. “Maybe it wasn’t right to make it about you two. But we worked hard on this story so we have the right to finish telling it.”

Theta scoffed loudly for effect. “Yeah?” He rolled his eyes, then leaned forward in his seat. “What was that one line then? ‘The most friendliest smile.’ That’s just stupid. Maybe you worked hard on this, but you sure as hell didn’t proofread it.”

“All right, that’s enough.” Professor Bappal stepped up to the front of the classroom near Rallon and Vansell, cutting off the argument before it could go any further. “Like it or not, I did say that you could write about your friends, so this isn’t technically breaking any rules. Vansell, how about you go ahead and read the rest of the story since Rallon read the first half?”

“Whatever.” Vansell snatched the paper away from Rallon, cleared his throat, and began to read.

 

“He didn’t quite get the response he wanted, considering his name was not really that cool at all, but Theta didn’t leave so he figured it was good enough. He began to row the boat out of there, so they could go someplace more romantic. Insert description of trip and romantic place here?! Rallon, I’m going to— sorry, okay. Anyway, they got to the super romantic place that Rallon didn’t write about and stopped, the twilight light shining down on them.

“Koschei opened his mouth to ask if Theta wanted a Jammie Dodger, but before he could, the merman kissed him and they had an intense make-out session. It was okay though, because the Jammie Dodgers had gotten soaked in the gross lake water anyway. Ask for Vansell for help with sappy ending line? What?! Ugh. Then they lived happily ever after, the end.”

 

“Wow.”

Vansell and Rallon both turned to their teacher expectantly. “What?” asked Rallon, a nervous expression on his face. “Just that good?”

“Yeah, right.” Vansell slapped him over the head, and he winced before rubbing the side of his head where he was hit.

“Actually,” said Professor Bappal, “it was the worst story I have ever heard. I meant that was… that was dreadful. It—”

Theta reached over and gave Koschei a fist-bump, then leaned back in his seat and relaxed to watch the show unfold. Vansell and Rallon’s story might have been insanely embarrassing (for all of them), but at least they got shouted at for it.

//

Millennia smiled when she saw Jelpax in the library that morning. He was sitting in one of the chairs around the coffee table, all by himself, reading a book about some historical event she had no interest in. She walked over and sat down in the chair beside him. She couldn’t tell if he didn’t notice her of if he just didn’t care, so she decided to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. Jelpax turned to look at her over his glasses, raising one eyebrow in silent curiosity.

“Hey,” said Millennia. She kept a cheerful expression on her face, even though he looked less than interested in having a conversation with her.

“What do you want?” he asked. His tone wasn’t annoyed, but more like he was expecting her to ask him for something and he wanted to get it over with. “I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”

“Eh.” She leaned over to read the title of his book, then shook her head. “Not really. That isn’t even assigned reading, unless it’s for one of your extra history classes.”

“It’s not extra when you’re going for my degree but thank you for implying that I have some sort of a hobby. Now seriously, what do you want from me?”

“Nothing, I swear. I just saw you sitting on your own and I was also sitting on my own and I just thought that we could maybe study together or something.”

Jelpax, who sent out a quick message on his phone before closing his book and turning his attention to her, laughed. “Socialization without requirement? Do you understand who you’re talking to?”

“Yes, and I have trouble believing that you’re serious about what you’re saying.” Millennia nodded towards his phone. “It’s kind of funny that you always say you hate socializing, but you spend half of your day talking to Drax.”

“That’s different,” he said, giving her a look. “He’s my best friend.”

“We’re friends too though, aren’t we?”

“Of course. But Drax is the only person I’ll probably never get tired of. No offense.”

She sighed. “None taken. But do you remember that time I tried to get you to socialize? We spent some time together, and we walked in the woods until you stopped wanting to interact with me?”

“Yes.” Jelpax nodded and leaned back in his seat. “Unfortunately, I do remember that. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I’m not planning to do it again. Especially not the part where we went outside. Ugh.”

Millennia chuckled. “I’m not going to force you to go outside again,” she said, as she pushed a lock of blue hair behind her ear. “I just want you to try and spend some time with people. I know that you like it more than you let on. Assuming you’re spending time with people you know well, of course.”

“We just established that I spend half my time talking to Drax. Why would I ever need to talk to anyone else?”

“Because, well—”

She didn’t get to finish her thought before the library doors swung open and loud footsteps hustled over to where they were sitting. Mortimus knocked a chair over in his hurry to get to them but paid no attention to it nor the pissed off librarian. He dropped to his knees on one side of the table and slammed a newspaper down on top of it, then looked up at Jelpax with an urgent expression on his face.

“Jelpax,” he said, clearly out of breath. “I read the newspaper.”

His jaw dropped. “You—You read the paper? You read the actual, legitimate paper? Not the Prydonian Paper? No offense, Millennia, but the actual, real paper? With real news?”

“Yes.” Mortimus looked almost offended at how many times he asked to confirm. “I read the actual, literal paper. And might I say, ho-ly shit. There is some insane stuff happening that I just can’t believe I didn’t know about. Like, did you hear about that bloke who crashed his skimmer? It started an insane fire that actually incinerated him. Like, totally. There was nothing left.”

“What?” Jelpax glanced over at Millennia, who looked just as confused as he did. “Where did you read that? That’s not true, Mortimus.”

“Yeah, it is. I read it in the normal newspaper. I don’t remember what it was called. It’s whatever this is.” He picked up the paper he had thrown onto the table, then waved it in front of Jelpax’s face and hauled it across the room. He ignored the librarian when she shouted at him. “Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to be reading the newspaper from now on. If stuff that interesting is really happening all the time, then I’d like to know about it.”

“Interesting stuff does happen all the time, but whatever you just said doesn’t happen. Ever. It’s literally not possible.”

Millennia put a hand on Mortimus’s shaking one. “Could you talk about this later, possibly? Jelpax and I were kind of in the middle of something, and you seem like you’re a bit too hyper right now.”

“I am.” When he spoke again, the words fell out of his mouth so quickly that she could barely even keep up. “The news was really, really boring at first, so I made it more interesting by eating candy. Lots and lots of candy. Like, a lot of candy. I had to finish my newspaper in the hallway because Magnus sent me away to go see the nurse since I was shaking so bad. I didn’t go see the nurse. It’s just a sugar rush. It’s not like I’m Drax.”

Jelpax raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, he has an anxiety disorder.”

“How do you know that?” He briefly glanced over at Millennia, who looked wildly uncomfortable. For a moment he considered saving the conversation, but hearing the truth felt more important than keeping things private. “Did he say something to you?”

“No.” Mortimus shook his head. “Are you all so thick? I am a psychology major. This is going to be my job. I don’t need him to say something to me for me to know that he has a problem. Not socially. Probably GAD. That’s why he’s always doing that tapping thing and whatever. Oh, god. Is the world spinning for you too?”

He suddenly grabbed onto the side of his head and dropped back against the chair behind him. Millennia rushed to his side and grabbed onto one arm to lift him to his feet.

“Sweetie, I know that this is kind of embarrassing,” she said, “but you need to go see the nurse. Something is very, very not right here and I really think we should go. You’ve had so much sugar.”

“Blah, blah, blah. Can I have another newspaper? I need another one. I want to read the news.”

“I’m sure the nurse has some. Come on, let’s go.”

Millennia looked up at Jelpax and shot him a look. He groaned, then stood up and walked over to help her. He might not have enjoyed their walk through the woods, but that was far superior to having to drag a sugar high Mortimus to see the nurse.

//

“Mm, this is one egg-cellent breakfast.”

Ushas looked up at Drax with one eyebrow raised. She hadn’t been particularly enjoying the meal in the first place, and Drax’s strange comment made it even worse. “Are you aware of the fact that you just butchered the pronunciation of the word ‘excellent’?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was a pun.” Drax shrugged and stuffed another bite of omelet into his mouth. “You know, you’re book-smart as hell, but you’d never survive on the street.”

“So? We’re Prydonians. None of us will ever have to live on the streets.”

“Don’t be so cocky,” said Magnus, taking a sip of whatever was in his water bottle. “More Prydonians have failed than you would think. The pressure gets to everyone eventually, I guess.”

“Not me.” Ushas dropped her fork down beside her plate, not intending to eat any more of her mediocre breakfast. She then turned back to Drax, who was still munching happily on his own. “Anyway, Drax, no more wordplay. It’s stupid.”

“I don’t know, I thought that it was pretty punny. Watch this.” He grabbed a banana off of Theta’s plate, then turned to his right. “Hey, Esila! I find you a-peeling.”

Ushas slapped the banana out of his hand amid his laughter, then turned to make sure that he hadn’t too badly embarrassed them all. Luckily, Esila and her friends seemed to ignore it for the most part and didn’t make a big deal out of it.

“Hey, you all right, Ushas?” For some reason, Drax’s tone sounded genuinely concerned. “You have kind of a weird egg-spression on your face.”

“Good god.” She dropped her head into her hands and dragged her fingers through her hair.

“Come on. I know I can be annoying, and it seems like I’m picking on you a bit, but I really like you. A waffle lot.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Yeah, it does. It’s waffle lot. Like awful lot? Waffle lot.” He narrowed his eyes and shook his head at her. “You have a waffle sense of humor. Other people think it’s funny. Look. Hey, Rallon! What does a thesaurus eat for breakfast?”

Rallon, who was sitting further down the bench from him, raised an eyebrow. “Nothing? It’s a book.”

“No, it eats synonym rolls.” He waited for laughter, but still nobody said anything. The entire table stared at him in an awkward silence. “Oh, come on. You guys are no fun at all.”

“We’re fun,” said Vansell. “You’re just not funny.”

Drax rolled his eyes as he stood up, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “I’m insanely funny. You just don’t like puns. Losers.”

Nobody tried to call after him when he left, popping one last bite into his mouth on the way. Ushas didn’t even bother to watch him go, only relieved to be rid of the stupidest sense of humor she had ever encountered.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, Rallon turned to Vansell and slid a notebook across to him.

“What’s this?” he asked, spinning it around to read it. “Oh. Oh, no. We’re not doing this again, you idiot.”

Koschei peered over his shoulder. “He said to write a better story, Rallon. If you try to revise the disaster you already wrote, it’s never going to work. There’s nothing salvageable there.”

“I don’t know. If it was meant to be humorous, I think it might be okay,” said Theta. He reached over and took the banana Koschei had on his plate, then started to peel it as he spoke. “I mean, I wasn’t laughing when they were reading the original thing, but that’s just because I didn’t like the fact that it was about me. Not that I think it’s gross or anything,” he added quickly. “I’d be lucky to have a stud like you, Kos. I just don’t appreciate the uncomfortable shipping.”

“Yeah, okay.” His entire face flushed red, and he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Rallon, Vansell, please just write this about something different or we’ll have to come at you with a shipping story.”

Vansell snorted. “That’s not even a good threat. We ship you two because it works. We—” he gestured to Rallon and himself “—would never work. I low-key hate him, and he’s way too in love with Millennia.”

“Hey!” Rallon too started blushing and turned around to see how many people had heard.

“What? She’s not here, and I’m pretty sure that everyone else in the entire Academy already knows it. You’re not subtle. Your eyes practically turn into hearts whenever you see her.”

“Stop. Hey.” Theta snapped his fingers around his friends faces. “Rallon, Kos, Nosebung, stop. Stay on topic. We need to sort out what you’re doing with this story. I’m not going to be able to relax at all today if I know you’re still working on this insane Thoschei story.”

“Thoschei?” Koschei’s jaw dropped. “For fuck’s sake, Theta. Don’t give them fuel!”

“No, please do.” Vansell scrawled something down on the notebook Rallon had passed to him. “This is good. Go on.”

“Go on with what? I think you missed the rest of what I said. You know, where I told you to stop writing the story?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t hear that part. Talk more about Thoschei. Are you more top or bottom? Because Rallon’s going to actually have to write the snogging this time.”

“What?” Theta’s eyes went wide. “I’m not going to answer that! Just stop. Please, stop. This is so stupid, I can’t even— We’re done here.”

He ignored Rallon and Vansell’s joking pleads for him to stay when he stood up and left the dining hall, trying to get as far away from that story as possible.

//

Jelpax wasn’t exactly sure how often Mortimus injured himself, but the nurse practically rolled her eyes when they walked into the room, so he figured it was significantly more than the average student.

“Ah, I see he’s dragging even decent students into his shenanigans now, yeah?” She sighed and gestured for Millennia and Jelpax to drag him over to the bed. They did. “What happened this time?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” said Jelpax, “but we think that he overdosed on sugar. He ran up to us and he was being insanely hyper, then he sort of collapsed. He also told us that he ate a lot of candy. Like, a lot of candy.”

“That’s true.” Mortimus pointed to him and nodded, his eyes wide. “Hey, do you have newspapers in here? Jelpax said that you might have some newspapers in here and I want to read the news.”

Millennia grabbed a newspaper from the rack near the door and handed it to him. He started to flip through it, scanning intently over the pages. After a minute he threw the newspaper across the room and turned to look at the nurse. He opened his mouth to speak, then screamed when she stuck a needle in his arm.

“Oh, fucking shit!” he cried, latching onto his arm with one hand as soon as she pulled away. “You could have given me some warning. God!”

The nurse turned to Millennia and Jelpax instead of him. “That should help lower the effects of the sugar, or at least tone him down a bit. If he’s still shaking like this at lunch time, then bring him back around and we’ll try again. You can go now and keep that sugar away from him. Too much of a good thing doesn’t make a great thing.”

“Thank you.” Millennia smiled at her gratefully and reached out to grab onto Mortimus’s wrist. “Okay, come on, sweetie. You have to go to class now.”

“Class? No. I don’t want to go to class.” He groaned but followed her out of the room anyway.

Jelpax, trailing slightly behind them, made a face. “You should probably get dressed before you go to class,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll appreciate it if you show up wearing that.”

“What?” Mortimus looked down at his clothes and looked almost shocked to see that he wasn’t wearing his red and orange uniform. Instead, he was wearing an over-sized white t-shirt and green pajama pants. “Holy shit. I really did eat a lot of sugar, didn’t I?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “It’s really not healthy. Now go get dressed already. Classes start in like ten minutes.”

Mortimus hustled down the hallway, leaving Millennia alone with Jelpax at last. She turned to look at him, a friendly expression on her face. “Still willing to socialize later?”

“You’re hilarious, Millennia.” He nudged her in the shoulder, then turned around and headed down the opposite side of the corridor.

Millennia sighed as she watched him go. She knew that it wasn’t necessarily right to meddle in other people’s lives, but she was determined to help him to become more social.

//

Ushas thought she was alone in the science lab, which was why she nearly jumped out of her seat when someone peeked over her shoulder and spoke, his humorous tone barely more than a whisper.

“Type A blood?” he said. Drax had been looking at the book on the table in front of Ushas, but he turned to look at her ominously before he finished his thought. “My doctor told me that I have type A blood, but it turned out that it was a type O.”

He dragged out the last word, forcing her to endure his horrible pun for far longer than she should have had to. Ushas slid her chair away from him, forcing a distance between the two of them. The smug smile on Drax’s face made her want to throw up, but she swallowed her disgust and looked up at him with an eyebrow raised.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” she demanded.

Drax shrugged. “Nothing major. I just learned something cool in class earlier and I thought I would share. Did you know that no matter how popular they get, antibiotics will never go viral?”

“You sought me out with the sole purpose of telling me a shitty pun? Look, Drax. I can understand you saying this kind of stuff to me when we’re already together, but to hunt me down in my safe space? Not cool.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I falafel about what I said.” He didn’t give her an opening to do more than roll her eyes. “But you know, you don’t have to be so NaCl about it.”

“NaCl?” Ushas frowned, then gasped and pointed a finger at him. “Sodium chloride. That’s a good science pun. Could it be that you’re not quite as stupid as you seem?”

“I managed to get into the Deca somehow, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but so did Mortimus. And yes, I think you’re smarter than him, but it’s hard to properly judge the accuracy of the Deca’s members when you realize that he made it in here.”

“True, although I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit.” Drax seemed more thoughtful than defensive, so she took the time to listen to him instead of immediately declaring him to be wrong. “I think he’s a lot smarter than he acts. Which might sound stupid. But he’s really perceptive. I think that he acts like an idiot just for the fun of it most of the time.”

Ushas frowned. “If you’re right, then wow. What a way to live your life. It’s like willing ignorance.”

“Again, this might sound stupid, but I attribute it to his career choices. He doesn’t talk about it a whole lot, but I know this other guy who’s a psychology major, and they teach them some really fucked up stuff. I’m not as perceptive as Mort himself, obviously, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he acts the way he does to disconnect from that.” He clapped his hands together to break the awkward silence that followed. “Anyway, that was deep, so I’m going to follow that with a question. Why did the picture go to jail? It was framed! Ha. You can shout at me later.”

With that, Drax ducked out of the room, leaving her on her own to finish her homework.

//

While Ushas was working in the science lab, Rallon and Vansell headed back to their dorm room straight after classes finished for the day. They weren’t particularly excited to resume working on their terrible story for class, but Professor Bappal told them that if they didn’t redo it, they would fail the assignment. Rallon was partially okay with that, but Vansell—his randomly assigned partner for the week—was absolutely against it, so they started the story from scratch.

“Do you think we should come up with a title this time?” asked Rallon. He was lying on his bed, wearing a casual white polo and a pair of light brown pants. He ran a hand through his dark brown hair as he scratched the side of his head, then looked for Vansell for an answer.

“We didn’t have a title last time?” He shook his head slowly. “How the hell did we think that this was ready to submit?”

“You left me to finish it, and I told you that I thought it was fine, but I actually forgot about it and never finished it. That’s why all of the notes were in there.” He sighed when Vansell shot him a look. “What? I’m a law student, Van! I have so much homework! You’ll never understand.”

Vansell rolled his eyes. “I don’t care how much homework you have, idiot. You botched our assignment. If anything, this should have been your highest priority, since it affected more than just you.”

“Well, if you care so much, why didn’t you finish it yourself? You never trust me with anything anyway.”

Instead of coming up with a response, Vansell grabbed a pillow from behind him and threw it at Rallon. It struck him in the side of the head, and he winced before turning back to look at his roommate, an unamused expression on his face. He lifted his eyebrows, as if to say ‘really?’ and tossed the pillow back to him. Vansell caught it with skill.

“We need plot ideas for this, Rallon. If we do take this in a different direction, what should we do?”

“Hm.” He placed a hand on his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t want to change it completely, you know what I mean? Like, I think that Theta and Koschei should still be the center of it because it’s funnier that way. Not that I want to upset our friends, but it’s better that way, so…”

“I absolutely agree.” Vansell nodded. “I just think that we should consider new plot ideas surrounding them. The merman thing was kind of a mess the whole way through, honestly. Other ideas?”

“No, I— wait! Hold on. I have something.” Rallon stood up and ran over to his desk, then rummaged through the dark drawers until he found a composition notebook. He held it up for Vansell to see before running over to his bed to show it to him up close. “This is my list of Theta and Koschei AUs. They’re not all my ideas, of course. I wrote some down after you said them, and others I stole from… okay, stop looking at me like that. I write fan fiction. Not about them. Can we move on? All right.”

Vansell spun the book around so he could read it. “Okay, before I can give you any kind of opinions on this, what the hell is an OTP?”

“One true pairing. It’s— never mind. In this case we’re referring to Theta and Koschei.”

“Gotcha.” He scanned down the list of ideas, shaking his head at the oddest ones. “‘Imagine your OTP as gods? What? Now I believe that your fan fictions aren’t about Theta and Koschei, because that’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“What? It’s better than this one.” Rallon pointed down to a certain paragraph, which was significantly longer than all the others. “This is just one horrible wall of text. At least that one is a concise idea.”

“I’m still not using it.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that you do.”

Vansell sighed. “Whatever. We just have to find one that’s actually good. Oh, wait. What’s this one?” He stopped and took his time looking over another idea, then raised an eyebrow and nodded approvingly. “I may be wrong, but I think we just found our plot.”

//

Jelpax practically dove to hide behind his book when Mortimus walked by him in the corridor. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough, and his friend walked over before he could properly get out of the way. Mortimus’s deep brown eyes were wide and alarmed, and Jelpax knew that whatever conversation they were about to have wasn’t normal.

“Thank god I found you,” he said. “Did you see the news?”

“No.” Jelpax frowned. He wasn’t sure whether to be proud that Mortimus was still keeping up with the news or concerned that he was freaking out about it. “Why? What happened?”

“The Lord President fell off a cliff and died! How is everyone not talking about this right now?” He ran a hand through his dark hair, messing up the tangles even worse. “This is some of the worst news that has been reported in years. At least, I would assume so. You know that I haven’t actually been reading the newspaper for that long.”

“Yeah, and I’m starting to wonder if you were actually telling the truth when you said that you started reading it. The Lord President did not fall off a cliff. If he actually died, the Academy would have made some kind of an announcement about it, and I would have seen it in the paper when I read it this morning. There was nothing about that in there, and there was nothing about that skimmer accident you were talking about either. Where are you getting this information from?”

“The newspaper. You know, the thing that you were begging me to read for once? I got it. The newspaper. Idiot.”

“Which newspaper, though?” He was starting to wonder why he spent so much time around such fools. “Not all of them are reliable.”

“There’s more than one newspaper?” For a second, it seemed like Mortimus was going to elaborate on his question, but instead he just spent several seconds pushing his hair out of his face only to have it fall back in.

Jelpax blinked. “Why did you ever decide to grow your hair out?” he asked.

“I didn’t. I decided to stop cutting it, and it just so happens that when you do that, it gets longer. Why? Do I look stupid? It’s still not as long as Magnus’s.”

“No, you actually look better with longer hair. It just seems to annoy you a lot.”

He shrugged. “It’s worth it if I look stylish,” he said. “Now, what were you saying about there being multiple newspapers? I don’t think I fully understood that.”

“There are a few different kinds of newspapers,” Jelpax explained. “Some are very politically biased. Some of them do this thing where they print false information so that they make sales. And then there’s a tiny percentage out there that actually provide decent and accurate, unbiased information about what’s happening in the world.”

“I don’t understand. Why would they lie?”

“For sales. I literally just told you.”

Mortimus frowned, his eyes flickering back and forth as if he couldn’t comprehend the information. “But that doesn’t make sense. That’s not why people lie. Why would you lie about your product? If you have to lie about it to get people to buy it, then shouldn’t you just make your actual product better?”

“You would think, but that takes more effort and costs more money.”

“So, they resort to deceit? God, I hope I haven’t been reading papers like that. What a horrible thing to do to people who just want to read the news.”

“Uh, Mortimus?” Jelpax crossed his arms. “You already read a paper like that. That’s why you thought that the Lord President fell off a cliff.”

“No, that’s true,” he argued. “They had actual pictures of it and stuff. I recycled the paper now, so I can’t show you anymore, but I’m telling the truth.”

Jelpax didn’t get a chance to explain fake pictures to him before Millennia walked up behind them. She put a hand on Mortimus’s shoulder in a friendly gesture and smiled reassuringly.

“Hey,” she said softly, “how are you feeling, sweetie?”

Mortimus shrugged. “I think the sugar wore off. It took a while, but I stopped shaking and nothing is spinning anymore.”

“Is that all? I just saw Chekrea and she said that you were acting weird in your class earlier.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been kind of shaken up about this whole newspaper thing.” He shook his head slightly, as if shaking away a bad thought. “But question: who the hell is Chekrea?”

“Seriously?” Millennia sighed. “She sits next to you in your intro to Gallifreyan psychology class. And she has for the entire time you’ve been taking it. I’m not in your class, obviously, but she told me that you’ve worked on projects together, and that you talk all the time.”

“Really? Huh. Well, I probably just say the same kind of creepy stuff to her that I say to everybody else. I can’t remember everyone that I freak out, you know?”

She blinked. “Oh. Then I’m suddenly wondering if you remembered to turn in your homework either? Because she said that she didn’t see you leave an essay behind like everyone else.”

“Essay?” Mortimus paused as he searched his brain, then gasped. “Oh, shit! My essay!”

He didn’t bother to say ‘bye’ to Millennia nor Jelpax before he turned around and ran off down the corridor again. Millennia smiled when she turned back to look at him, and he did not return the expression, but crossed his arms defensively.

“Please don’t ask me about socialization again,” he said. “I have had more than my fill of Mortimus today and I’m not in the mood to deal with anyone else.”

“Don’t worry, I understand. I actually came over to ask if you’ve seen Drax. We were supposed to meet about this engineering thing, but he didn’t show up and he isn’t answering his messages.”

“Ah, yeah.” Jelpax nodded understandingly. “I think he’s spent his day messing with Ushas. I’d wait on it. You can talk to him once he gets bored of his joke.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, do you want to hang out for a while? Or do you have something else to do?”

He laughed and shook his head. “You’re unbelievable, Mil.”

//

Ushas nearly skipped dinner that evening, as she already knew that Drax was going to be there making puns and she wanted to have no part in it. However, she had to get out of the science lab anyway because of the risks of prolonged exposure, so she ultimately decided to go ahead anyway. Nearly everyone was there when she arrived, save for Rallon, Vansell, and Jelpax who were nowhere to be seen.

“Hey.” She stopped and stood beside Magnus, who didn’t bother to greet her back. “Good dinner or shit dinner?”

“Shit dinner,” Theta answered through a mouthful of something, “good dessert.”

Ushas nodded and turned around to get her dinner. She almost thought that it was going to be a normal meal, until Drax stood up and followed her over to the dinner line despite the fact that he had already gotten his meal. He stood beside her silently until she stopped in front of the tacos. He leaned in close to her ear, then whispered, “You want to taco ‘bout it?”

“You want to leave me alone?” she snapped, pointing a butter knife at him menacingly.

“Hey, watch it!” Drax grabbed a saltshaker off the nearest table, then pointed it at her. “I’ll call the Headmaster on you for a-salt with a deadly weapon.”

“It’s a butter knife, and you seriously need to stop with the puns. You’re making me want to shove this ‘deadly weapon’ into my own skull.”

He smiled and pushed his bangs back. “I’m just trying to cheer you up,” he said. “You’re such a bore sometimes.”

“And I like it that way.” She tried to outrun him on the way back to the table, but of course he went to the same place and they sat down only a few feet apart. Once she was in her seat, Ushas turned to look at Magnus pleadingly. “Any chance you can help me make him go away?”

“Probably not,” he answered lamely. His deep blond hair was pulled back, but a few strands still fell into his face. “I’ve been trying to get rid of Mortimus since the first day we arrived and all I’ve managed to do is make him worse.”

“It’s true.” Mortimus, who was sitting across the table eating a bread roll, nodded. “I got here early on orientation day, you know, so I could set up my room. And, about an hour after I arrived, he came in, saw me, and left. At the end of the day, he told me that he tried to switch roommates, but they wouldn’t let him. That was a really low point for me.”

Magnus pointed to him as if to reinforce his point. “True story.”

“All right, never mind then. I’ll just endure his stupid puns.” Ushas glared at Drax from across the table, but he only responded with a sympathetic expression.

“Eat your dinner, Ushas,” he said calmly. “You’re not really mad at me, you’re just hangry.”

Theta snorted. “Drax, how are you doing this? Teach me your ways.”

“Please don’t,” Koschei interrupted, holding up a hand in the classic gesture. “I really don’t want to have to listen to Theta making puns the entire day. It would quite literally ruin my life.”

“Now you understand what I’m going through,” said Ushas. She took one bite of her food, then made a face and put down her utensils. “Look, Drax, we need to discuss this, because this has been one of the worst days of my entire life. This is the exact kind of ridiculous nonsense I have no interest in being a part of.”

“Which is exactly why I’m trying to get you into it.” Drax sighed, his shoulders sagging as he turned his gaze downward. “Fine, I’ll stop doing it. I just… I know that I was really horrible today, and I was driving you crazy, but I hope that you can still fork-ive me.”

She reached across the table and slapped him over the head.

//

“…then, he invited the beautiful boy to join him on stage and sing the final song with him. Koschei took both of his tiny hands to help him onto the stage, and continued singing while staring into the dark blond boy’s deep blue eyes…”

 

“No.” Vansell shook his head. “Nope, sorry. I don’t like this anymore. This is shit. It’s just absolute shit. Where did you get this idea from? And why did I think that it was a good idea at first? Never mind. Let me hear what else you’ve got.”

Rallon flipped through his book, searching for a better prompt. He read several out loud, hoping that his roommate would choose one of them, but he didn’t. Finally, Rallon landed on a page with half of a story on it, and he paused. A quick re-read of what he had written proved that it wasn’t terrible, and with a few name and pronoun changes, it might not be all that bad.

“Hey, here’s something. Do you think we might be able to use a story if I already wrote some of it? We can change the names to Theta and Koschei, and nobody has to know that I wrote it ahead of time.”

Vansell hesitated. “That depends on what it is. Read it.”

 

“Koschei was feeling terrible about himself that day. He sucked. Life sucked. Everything sucked. He thought that it was going to turn out okay, like it always did, but it didn’t. That day, while he was driving home, he got the sudden urge to turn into oncoming traffic. Everything inside of him screamed at him not to, to spare the lives of whoever he might hit, but he couldn’t stop it. He turned the car around and almost instantly slammed into the person in front of him.

“He didn’t die on impact, and instantly regretted his actions. Koschei ran to see who the other driver was, to find out if they were okay, and gasped when a shorter, dark blond-haired boy stumbled out of the vehicle. It was then that he knew why he did it. Not because he wanted to die, but because he wanted to live. It was love at first sight. His soulmate. He—”

 

“Okay, stop. Stop it. What the fuck?”

Rallon put down his book when Vansell snapped at him. “What?” he asked. “What was wrong with that? I think that’s one of the best ones I’ve written. It’s emotionally intense.”

“Emotionally intense?” Vansell looked so utterly mind-boggled that he couldn’t hardly wrap his head around what he was listening to. “You literally believe that the story is ‘emotionally intense’? You’re the worst writer on the entire planet, Rallon.”

“Wow, that’s harsh. You don’t know. This is unedited, okay? And it’s just a concept. It would be way better if I actually put some effort into it, but I don’t have time for that unless you pick it for out assignment.”

“No. No, absolutely not. We’re supposed to be sharing a story, not scaring our classmates. Now find something different to write about.”

“You find something different to write about.” Rallon grabbed his notebook and threw it at Vansell, who caught it before it managed to make contact with his head.

“Thanks for the warning, asshole.” He opened the book and flipped through it for the umpteenth time that evening, hoping that he might find something decent enough to at least give him an idea. He didn’t exactly expect Rallon to come up with something brilliant, but his prompts were at least inspirational.

He stopped and froze when he came across a specific prompt. “Okay, I think I found something that’ll work. Listen to this. ‘In this universe, everyone has a watch counting down to when they’ll meet their soulmate. Character A is about to meet Character B.’ Not too shabby.”

“But way too complicated,” Rallon groaned. “We have a word count requirement on this, Van. We can’t go too crazy with stuff like that or we won’t get the chance to describe everything we need for it to make sense. That is the exact reason why our first story bombed. We didn’t have the space to explain the ban on fishing, or the romantic trip that they took at the end. Or, boat ride. Whatever.”

“I thought that our first story bombed because you couldn’t be bothered to write that part of it. And don’t give me your bullshit homework excuse.”

“I am going to give you my homework excuse. You don’t know what it’s like trying to be a lawyer.”

“Maybe I don’t, but in case you haven’t realized, I have big plans too. Defense Minister? That could be me someday, if I could only get through these stupid intro to politics classes. I want weapons training.”

Rallon winced. “Weapons training?” He shook his head. “Let’s just stay focused on the story. I don’t want to discuss violence right now, especially not when it involves you holding a weapon of any sort.”

“Whatever. Just keep trying to think of a prompt. I’ll take one more look through this stupid thing.”

He sighed and resumed his look through the pages of Rallon’s book. He no longer believed that he was going to find anything usable, but he hoped he could come across something that would help him come up with his own idea.

//

When Jelpax showed up for breakfast the following morning, Mortimus was drinking coffee and pouring over a newspaper. His dark hair was falling into his eyes, but for the first time since he had grown it out, he didn’t try to push it away, his eyes reading quickly and urgently. Jelpax sat down across from him to see what exactly was so interesting that he was mesmerized, and his jaw nearly dropped onto the floor when he realized where Mortimus had been getting his terrible information from.

“Hey, Mortimus.” Jelpax reached over and flicked him in the forehead to get his attention, and he looked up, his eyes wide.

“What?” he asked.

Before Jelpax could answer, Magnus—who was reading the actual newspaper—spoke up. “You’re reading a parody newspaper, dumbass.”

“What the—?” Mortimus folded the paper in half and flipped it over so he could take a look at the cover. He shook his head, his eyes scanning over the whole thing. “What do you mean? It doesn’t say parody on here anywhere. I think you’re lying.”

“It doesn’t have to say parody, you idiot. Just look at mine compared to yours.”

He handed his paper over to Mortimus and set their headlines side-by-side. The one that Magnus was reading said, “Scendeles Build New Town Hall”, while the one Mortimus had read, “Scendeles Design New Laundry Detergent; Hope to Rid Universe of Their Stench”. Mortimus stared at them side-by-side for a minute, as if trying to wrap his head around the fact that one newspaper was filled with nothing but lies, then dropped them both onto the table and groaned.

“Does that mean that Scendeles are still going to stink?” he asked, looking up at Magnus disappointedly. He only nodded in response. “Dammit! I thought I was going to finally be able to walk past their dormitory without having to plug my nose.”

Magnus put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “We all did, Mortimus. And we can all still dream of that day. It’ll never come, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep hoping.”

“What if we just got them a whole bunch of perfume? Or cologne?”

“That’s not enough,” said Jelpax, who was still sitting across from him. “You could launch all the fundraisers in the world, and you’d never make enough money to get rid of their stench for more than a few days. At this point, it’s probably stuck in the walls and the floor. We’ll need to demolish the entire dormitory and start from scratch, and that’s just not possible. No one would be able to fund it, nor build quickly enough to not interrupt with lessons.”

Mortimus nodded and wiped a tear from his eye. “God, I can’t believe this.” He finally reached up to push his hair back, then sighed. “At least it means that the Lord President hasn’t fallen off of a cliff.”

“Remind me why you thought this was true?” Magnus crossed his arms, an eyebrow raised in confusion.

“I don’t know. I guess I was just enjoying the fact that I like the newspaper for once.”

“And you still can enjoy that newspaper,” said Jelpax. Despite what he said, he pushed Magnus’s newspaper closer to him. “You just have to acknowledge the fact that everything in there is fake, and also take the time to read the real one.”

He groaned. “But the real one is so boring. I know that it’s fake, but I like this one so much better. I don’t like the real one, or even the Prydonian Paper—no offense, Millennia—but this one had me hooked. I fell in love with it.”

“Then maybe you should try reading some actual fiction books. I have plenty that I could recommend if you’re interested.”

“No.” He glanced over at Magnus. “I don’t read. Not for pleasure, anyway.”

“You literally were just reading for pleasure.”

“Yeah, and then I found out that this is all fake, so I’m not reading for pleasure anymore. It’s stupid.”

Jelpax rolled his eyes. “Fine, whatever.” He went to stand up, so he could actually grab his breakfast, but Mortimus reached over and grabbed his sleeve to stop him.

“But could you lend me some books, though?”

“Yes, Mortimus.” He couldn’t help himself from letting out a chuckle. “Yes, I can lend you some books.”

Even though Jelpax was stubborn about needing his personal space, and he would never admit to it, he really enjoyed his friends a lot more than he let on.

//

The entire room was silent when Rallon and Vansell finished reading the final draft of their story. Everyone was staring at them, and Rallon felt like he was going to choke. He tugged at his collar, but the ugly thing wouldn’t loosen. He swallowed hard and glanced over at Professor Bappal, not wanting to look to desperate for a reaction.

Just when he was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be enough, that everyone was planning to laugh at them, someone clapped. Then two people clapped, and three. Everyone in the room stood up in their seats, including Professor Bappal, and they clapped. They cheered. Rallon thought he even heard a few “whoop”s.

Because he didn’t know what else to do, and he felt unbelievably uncomfortable with all of the attention, Rallon did a sort of fake bow and gave a high-five to Vansell. Even though they had bombed it the first time, they utterly succeeded with their rewrite. They came back better and stronger than ever. Even though he was so socially awkward that he just wanted to run out of the room, Rallon felt good about himself. It felt amazing to actually succeed for once.

“Good job, boys,” said Professor Bappal, once the applause finally calmed down. He came over and grabbed their paper, then pressed a green stamp onto it. Rallon smiled hugely, while Vansell thanked him. Before he knew what was happening, their professor pulled two medals out of his pocket and placed them over each of their necks. “That was the best thing I’ve ever heard. You won the story of the century award!”

Everyone started clapping again, and Rallon couldn’t stop smiling. Somehow, he couldn’t even remember writing the story, but it was such a success that he didn’t care. They did it. They passed, and their story was so good that even Theta and Koschei didn’t have anything negative to say about it!

Professor Bappal tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to look at him, hoping to win another surprise award. “Yes, Professor?”

“Rallon,” he said stoically.

“Yeah, it’s me. What do you need?”

“Rallon.” That voice belonged to Vansell, who also began poking him on the shoulder.

“What?” He turned back and forth between the two of them frantically. “What do you want from me?!”

Neither of them answered but continued repeating his name over and over. Suddenly, all of the other students stood up as well, and walked over to him to join in on the poking.

“Rallon. Rallon. Rallon. Rallon. Rallon.”

He screamed, and collapsed to the ground, hoping they would go away, but they didn’t. They kept poking him and saying his name over and over and over again until he closed his eyes and covered his ears, trying to block it out. Then suddenly, it stopped, and everything went silent.

Rallon sat up quickly and was met with the face of Vansell—and only Vansell—standing over him in his bed. He crossed his arms as soon as he saw that Rallon was awake, an angry expression on his face.

“Rallon, what the hell?” he snapped. “You overslept, you nitwit! We’re supposed to be presenting our story in ten minutes! Is it even done?”

He didn’t even know. Rallon whipped over to grab his notebook, which had fallen off of the bed, then opened it up to see what he wrote down before falling asleep the night before. He froze and took a deep breath after he saw what was there.

 

Once upon a time, there was a prince named Prince Koschei. [Insert something about Koschei wandering through the forest here.] [Insert comparison to Snow White here.] [Insert epic kiss scene here.] And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

 

“Uh, yeah,” he answered. He slammed the book shut, then swung his feet over the bed in a hurry. “Totally finished.”

//

“…and they actually read it to the class. Like, standing in front of the class, not trying to be humorous, actually dead ass reading this thing that Rallon apparently scraped together in five minutes. Professor Bappal said that it was actually worse than the first assignment they turned in. He nearly whipped them with a ruler. I mean, he didn’t of course, because his ruler is shit and probably would have snapped, but still.”

Rallon had his head buried in his arms on the desk he chose to sit at for their meeting that morning (which, not-so coincidentally, was in the way back corner). He knew that everyone was staring at him and laughing, and he tried to block it out. Even though him and Vansell were partners on the assignment, he was ultimately responsible for what happened, and he could hardly find it in himself to push past the humiliation.

“That has got to be the sealiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Drax chuckled.

Ushas whipped around to glare at him, her expression more menacing than he had ever seen before. “The what-est thing you’ve ever heard?”

“Sealiest,” he answered simply. “You said that you didn’t like when I used ‘punny’ so I made an animal joke instead. I thought it was pretty clever.”

“You need to stop, Drax. Seriously. Please just stop with the idiotic puns.”

“I would but… I’m sorry. I’m really, truly sorry.” He grabbed a round object and lifted it up from beneath his desk. “I would, but I cantaloupe.”

“That doesn’t even make sense!” she snapped.

He sighed and put the cantaloupe down. “I know,” he said, as he slowly tore a page out of his notebook. “It was really tear-able.”

They continued to argue like that, but for once, Mortimus didn’t bother to watch nor listen to the excitement going down. He was completely captivated by the book in his hands and felt that nothing was more important than finding out what the next sentence would hold. Jelpax smiled over at him, pleased with his work. The situation may have gotten off to a strange start, but it certainly resolved itself in a good way.

After several minutes of insults and puns being thrown around the room, Koschei groaned loudly in an attempt to break it up and threw a pencil at the back of Drax’s head. He winced and whipped around to look at Koschei, who was not the least bit remorseful.

“Come on, guys,” he whined. “We’ve been talking about this forever. Can we just please get back to Theta’s story? I want to make fun of Rallon and Vansell some more.”

Rallon, who was still hiding in his arms, shook his head. More than anyone else, he could feel Millennia’s gaze on him, and he hated it. He especially didn’t want her to look down on him, for any reason at all (and especially not for a very embarrassing one). Luckily for him, Mortimus interrupted before Theta could go on about the stupid thing that he had done.

“Actually,” said Mortimus, raising a finger, “I’d like to say something if it’s not too much of an interruption?”

Ushas sighed loudly but gestured for him to speak regardless.

“There’s this newspaper out there, I think it’s called ‘the Beet’ or something? That’s all full of bullshit. When you first start reading it, it might seem like it’s true, but it’s not. Like, the Lord President didn’t actually fall off of a cliff. And Scendeles didn’t actually invent a new stink-proof laundry detergent. It’s just nothing but lies and things that you would think are real but aren’t. Therefore, it’s all about disappointments. So yeah, in summary, please don’t read the Beet. Or support them in any way. Liars suck.”

“That they do,” Vansell agreed, “that they do. Which is exactly why I need to tell you guys that Theta is lying.”

Theta’s jaw dropped at the same time that Rallon snapped his head up to see what was happening. “I’m not lying. I was sitting in class when you told that shit story.”

“Yeah, right. Then why do I have this?” He reached into his bag, then pulled out a piece of paper which was stamped with a green mark not unlike the one Rallon had seen in his dream. Vansell turned it around, to make sure that everyone in the room could see it before he put it down again. “See? If the story was so terrible, then how did I pass?”

“You faked it,” said Koschei. He was staring at Vansell in disbelief, his eyes slightly narrowed. “I know that you didn’t pass, Van. I was standing there when he handed you the fail.”

“I guess you thought you saw something that you didn’t.”

“And I also imagined the horrendous story that you wrote?” He shook his head slowly. “My brain would never be able to come up with that shit. What did you do?”

“Yeah.” Rallon couldn’t stay silent anymore. He had to know. He finally sat up in his seat, his brow furrowed. “What did you do?”

Vansell shrugged. “I didn’t do anything, and I don’t know what you’re all accusing me of. But Rallon, I want you to know that only one of us passed the assignment, and it wasn’t you. Turns out you should really spend more time on your core classes instead of putting spending all your study time working on your stupid law stuff.”

“The law stuff is important to me, though! I know that I already told you like seventy-five times, but you will never understand what I’m going through. You don’t know what it’s like to study this stuff.”

“What is it like, Rallon?” asked Millennia curiously. She turned to look at him, her chin propped up on one hand.

He blushed and looked down at his hands. “Oh, it’s, uh, interesting. We learn a lot about… the law.” He winced at his own stupid comment. “Sorry, that was a really dumb thing to say. I’m sure that most of these guys, especially Magnus, don’t want to know about it. But I can tell you later, if you want? And maybe you could share some stuff about temporal engineering?”

“Of course.” Millennia smiled, and his face went even redder. “I’ll stop by your room after classes today.”

“Sounds good.” As soon as she looked away, he dropped his head back down into his arms, once again trying to hide from the endless stream of embarrassing moments that made up his life.

Ushas ignored them both. “Anyway,” she said, “I think that’s it for the day, so we can call this to a close unless anyone else has something to talk about? No? Okay. Meeting adjourned.”

Everyone headed straight out of the room, already grouping up with their closest friends, except for Drax who hung around. He walked over to Ushas, who was gathering her things at the front of the room and came to a halt in front of her. She looked up at him, the expression on her face already far from amused. All she wanted was to be alone, but of course she had to be attacked by more puns.

“What now, Drax?”

“Nothing!” He held up his hands in defense. “God. You don’t have to be such a bitch. I just wanted to say gadolinium boron yttrium einsteinium before I left.” He smiled at her, not blinking as he added one last comment to the nonsense he had said. “Good luck figuring that one out, Ushas.”

She waited until he was completely out of the room to drop her head onto the desk, and even a little longer after that until she let out a loud groan.

Chapter Text

Mortimus almost didn’t make it to lunch in time. In all the years he had been there, he had yet to show up late to the meal, and he wasn’t about to start. If you didn’t get there early you didn’t get the best food, and he did not want to eat substandard food.

He took his time going through the lunch line, to make sure that he got the optimal meal. By the time he sat back down at the Deca’s usual table, Vansell and Jelpax were both sitting in their seats, deep in conversation.

“…yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I might just skip it, honestly.” Vansell didn’t actually eat his food but pushed it around his plate with his fork. “Like, I don’t really see the point in showing up, to be honest. Not to say I’d skip just for the hell of it, but I really have better things to do.”

“That makes sense.” Jelpax nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “I’ll probably go. Not because I want to, but Drax is going since he needs the credit, so I’ll go keep him company. It would be really shitty to leave him at that boring thing all by himself.”

“Hey, what are you guys talking about?” asked Mortimus, through a mouthful of muffin.

“Debating whether or not to go to that lecture thing in a few days,” Vansell answered. “You’ve heard of it, yeah? It doesn’t sound that interesting to me, so I was thinking about skipping it.”

He furrowed his brow. “Isn’t it mandatory?”

“Yeah, but there’ll be so many people there that they won’t notice if I don’t show up. Even with the sign-in sheets. I doubt anyone is actually going to scan through those anyway, so what does it matter? They’ll probably just be looking for people like Drax who need the credit for this semester.”

“Oh.” Mortimus nodded slowly. “But still, don’t you feel bad about it? Like, I would feel absolutely terrible if I skipped. Even if no one noticed, the guilt would get to me and I’d probably confess.”

“It’s not a big deal.” Vansell spread some cream cheese onto his bread before he continued. “I mean, I’ve skipped things plenty of times before. So has Drax. The only difference is that he’s done it one too many times so now they’ve got him on watch for misbehavior.”

“That is true.” Jelpax pointed to him. “Drax is kind of an idiot. He used to have this punch card, so he would know how often he skipped, but he stopped using that sometime after he gave up on temporal theory a few years ago.”

“Didn’t he start going again, though?”

“Yeah, but he still never picked up his habits again. I tried to convince him to get back into it—well, after I failed to convince him to stop skipping at all—but he wouldn’t go for it. I don’t know why. I mean, I know that I’m his best friend and whatever, but it’s really hard to figure him out sometimes.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” said Vansell. “He can be really—”

“Hey, shut up for a second. I’m trying to think.” Mortimus threw a breakfast panini at Vansell’s head, then stared down at his hands, his eyes flickering back and forth as his mind raced with thoughts. “Okay. So what you’re saying is that you’ve cut class before? Plenty of times? And nobody even cared?”

He shrugged. “Pretty much. Nobody really gives a fuck so long as you still manage to pass your classes. Which is why you can’t skip too much, y’know, because you wouldn’t know anything. Which is why Drax is failing.”

“That’s not actually why he’s failing,” said Jelpax, “but that is an astute observation, so I won’t shout at you for it. And Mortimus, whatever you’re thinking about doing right now, don’t. Please don’t.”

“What? I’m not thinking of doing anything terrible.” Mortimus dragged out the last word dramatically. “I just don’t want to be the one person who’s never cut class before. All three of you have done it, right? So, in theory, I should do it too. Like, a rite of passage for the Deca.”

“There is no ‘rite of passage’, and if there were, that wouldn’t be it. In case you hadn’t noticed, Ushas isn’t about to break the rules anytime this century. Look, you can skip the lecture, Mort, but don’t do anything more than that. Don’t take this too far.”

“I never take things too far.”

“You always take things too far.”

Mortimus smiled. “I never take things too far,” he repeated.

//

The morning got off to a pretty normal start, until Theta slipped on something and flew into the air for a second before landing flat on his back in the middle of the corridor. Most people continued to walk around him as if nothing happened, but Koschei—his supposed best friend—burst into laughter. He grabbed onto his stomach, gasping for breath through his tears of joy.

“It’s not funny!” Theta snapped. He sat up slowly, rubbing the side of his head. “Ow. That really hurt. It’s not like it’s my fault, either. I slipped on that thing.”

“What thing?”

He shrugged and turned around to see what was there, then gasped when his eyes landed on the small black rectangle he had stepped on. It was made from some sort of fake leather, its surface shining in the bright light. Theta reached over to grab it; his eyes widened in awe. He stood up once he had it in his grip, a stupidly wide grin stuck on his face.

“What’s that?” asked Koschei. He peered over Theta’s shoulder and watched as he opened up the wallet. “Holy shit! That’s money!”

“Damn right it’s money.” He glanced around the hallway, then closed the wallet and stuffed it into his pocket. “I thought that I was cursed or something, but this was actually a blessing in disguise. We have money, now, Kos. We’re practically rich.”

“You didn’t even count it yet. And I love money as much as the next guy, but legitimate question: what are we going to do with it? There’s no way to spend it here. Not unless someone installs a vending machine.”

“Look, we turned down that idea way back when you ran for President of the Deca. Just because you continue to talk about it doesn’t mean that anyone is ever going to change their minds about it. How the hell would we even use it anyway? It’s not like we have supply trucks bringing in fucking candy bars every week.”

Koschei rolled his eyes. “We would make the candy, you dumbass.”

“And again, I go back to, ‘are you living in the past’? You are literally the worst chef in the universe. You single-handedly gave me food poisoning, and you didn’t even cook anything wrong. You almost killed me with a sandwich, and yet you think that you’re skilled enough to make candy bars.”

“Duh. I’m not concerned about the candy bars, Thete. I’ve gotten a lot better over the years.”

“You’ve literally never practiced once.”

“But it’s been years. Therefore, I must be better by now.” Koschei rolled his eyes. “What, you think I don’t know how time works? Things get better over time. That’s what everyone says.”

“Yeah, they get better if you actually work at it. And again, you did not work at it. At all. Even a tiny bit.”

They stopped arguing when Jelpax walked up. He looked between them for a minute, as if he wasn’t interested in getting involved, then groaned and decided to ask them what the hell they were doing.

“Well, I was going to ask why you weren’t at breakfast,” he said, “but I suppose it’s because you’ve been here arguing. What are you going on about?”

Koschei managed to beat Theta to the punch. “He found a wallet on the ground and we’re trying to figure out what to do with our riches,” he explained.

Jelpax frowned. “That’s not your money. It belongs to whoever dropped it, and you need to give it back.”

“Yeah, right,” he chuckled. “Me and Theta doing the right thing. You’re fucking hilarious, Jel.”

He wrapped an arm around Theta’s shoulders, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the wallet to count their find. Jelpax watched them go helplessly, both wanting to stop them and knowing that it wasn’t possible.

//

Millennia blew a bubble of gum, then popped it back into her mouth and continued chewing on it. Normally she wouldn’t have done such a thing in the middle of class, but their logic professor still hadn’t shown up and they were nearly fifteen minutes into the class period. If it weren’t for Ushas sitting directly beside her, she probably would have walked out by that point, but her best friend kept her in her place.

“Would you stop chewing that?” Ushas snapped, poking Millennia in the shoulder with the back of her pencil. “We’re in class.”

“Professor Nange literally hasn’t even shown up yet.”

She rolled her eyes. “Which is an excuse to break the rules? Sometimes I can hardly believe that I’m actually friends with you, Millennia. Plus, I’m trying to work on my homework right now. You know, like a responsible student? You two are intolerable.”

“Two?”

Rallon, who was sitting at the desk behind her, reached forwards and tapped her on the shoulder. “Hi,” he said lamely. “Intolerable number two over here.”

“Yeah,” Ushas pointed her pencil back towards him. “You need to stop shaking your leg. It’s pissing me off.”

“You can’t even see it from where you’re sitting!” He rolled his eyes, acknowledging her stupid comment, but stopped shaking his leg regardless.

Just when someone in the back of the room started to gather their stuff to leave, the classroom door suddenly opened and Professor Nange stumbled in, a smug-looking child at his side. Based on his height and general appearance, Ushas guessed that he was still primary school age, which meant he wasn’t staying at the dorms yet. She narrowed her eyes but made sure that the expression wasn’t clearly directed at the mysterious child.

“Sorry everyone!” Professor Nange exclaimed, as he rushed to get things ready at his desk. “My babysitter fell through and I was trying to scrape something together, but I guess this’ll have to do for today. Irbirumeddes, why don’t you introduce yourself to the class while I get this started?”

“Because they’re a bunch of stupid people.” The kid glared around the classroom; his arms crossed. “Whatever. I’m Irbirumeddes, but people call me Meddes. Don’t call me Irb or I’ll throttle you. Don’t call me Biru or I’ll throttle you. Don’t call me Med or I’ll—”

“Okay!” The professor grabbed onto the child’s shoulders and led him over to a chair in the corner. “That’s enough talk of throttling for today. Now just sit down and stay silent, all right? This is a little preview of when you finally start attending the Academy.”

“I don’t need to come here. I’m smart enough already.”

Ushas could hardly stand the attitude on the kid. She glared at him for real when she looked over at him that time, but he didn’t notice. Millennia did, however, and slapped her quietly across the shoulder, an appalled expression on her normally friendly face.

“What are you doing?” she snapped. “Do you want Professor Nange to shout at you? Because I’m fairly certain he’d care more about you being rude to his kid than he would about me blowing a few bubbles before class even technically started.”

She raised her eyebrows. “He didn’t even see,” she said, keeping her voice low. “And besides, it’s not like I’m actually being a jerk to him. I was just letting out some anger in response to his actions. He’s a little kid, Mil. What’s the worst he could do?”

//

“No,” said Mortimus, shaking hsi head. He was sitting on the floor beneath one of the windows in the hallway (which was nearly silent, due to most people not having the same free period as he), his legs crossed. “No, it’s not enough. I need to do something bigger than that. I can’t settle for something that six dozen other people are going to skip anyway. I need to do something that’ll make people go ‘oh, shit! He really had the balls to skip that?’”

“I think you’re out of your depth here.” Drax, who was sitting upside down on the windowsill, blew a strand of hair out of his face, sending it to hang beneath his head with the rest of his bangs. “I cut class all the time because people expect it. Nobody expects it from you. In fact, people expect the exact opposite of it from you.”

“Are you sure?” He reached into his bag to grab a new marker, then unscrewed the cap but didn’t do anything with it. “I mean, I always show up for class, but it’s not like I’m a great student or anything. In fact, I’m mostly known to our professors as ‘that bloke who falls asleep during every lecture’.”

“Not just lectures. Everything that lasts longer for three minutes without a visual. Now keep working.”

Mortimus lifted the silver marker up to Drax’s face and started to add accents to his work. “I mean, this isn’t crazy though, is it?”

“This?” He tried to shake his head, then winced when his hair flipped around. “No, I’m going to look fabulous.”

“I’m not talking about that, you dummy. I know that you’re going to look fabulous. I’m talking about me cutting class. Is this actually a ridiculous idea? You could be right about me being in over my head on this. I don’t know if this is really the best thing for me to do.”

Drax pointed a finger at him, his silver nail polish shining in the light. “No, Mort. You do not get to chicken out already. Not yet.”

“Okay.” Mortimus sighed and popped the cap back onto his marker. He reached into his case and started to surf through it for the next marker he needed. “Which class do you think I should skip, then? An important one, like a psych class? Or something crappier that has more students, like math?”

“First, find the white marker. You did way too much fucking silver.” He was holding a hand mirror in front of his face, his nose wrinkled in disgust. “You think this looks good?”

“It’s hard to tell in this light! God. Why am I even helping you right now? What if someone walks by right now? You know how gay this looks?”

“You know how gay you are?” He rolled his eyes and set the mirror back onto the floor. “Don’t give me that look, Mort. Everyone knows. Just come out of the closet already.”

Mortimus blinked. “You’re one to talk. And I don’t need to come out of the closet. I was never even in there. The day I was born I didn’t come out of my mum; I fell out of the cabinet with all the other dishes. Clink, clack, clink, clack! No people, no births, just a big pile of pans and sexual fluidity. See this? That’s not an arm. It’s a fucking handle!”

“Why are you like this?”

“Why are you like that?”

Drax sighed loudly. “Because I’m upside down and you’re a sentient frying pan.”

“And damn proud of it.” He held up three markers—pink, yellow, and blue. “Or, I would be if Magnus didn’t always make fun of me. He’s so judgmental.”

“Yeah, but do you really think he cares? He’s not doing it because he’s really judging you, he’s just doing it to be an asshole. Seriously. Go find some hot guy and snog in front of him. He won’t give a shit.” Mortimus looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes, so Drax grinned and laughed in a friendly manner, then pushed a hand in his face. “Not me, you idiot, but I appreciate the compliment. Now finish my flowers.”

Mortimus finally pulled out the white marker and began to draw over some of the silver he had originally doodled on Drax’s face. “Anyway, we have to figure out this whole thing. Do you have any more ideas?”

“Of course. I was thinking that after you finish that, you could add some vines, and—”

“No, about me cutting class. Obviously, I’m going to add vines. Look, I just thought that since you’re like, a master at this, maybe you could help me?”

“You mean a master at skipping class, right? Not being gay. Because I’m not, so if that’s the case then you should really get advice from someone else.”

“Duh, I mean about skipping class. I know you’re not gay. That’s why I’m painting flowers on your face.” Mortimus rolled his eyes.

“Oh, in that case, yeah, I can help.” Drax blinked several times, as if he was dizzy, then regained his composure. “First of all, stop saying you’re going to ‘cut class’. The cool kids say that you’re ‘playing hooky’.”

“Really? That doesn’t sound any cooler.”

He tried to shrug, but because he was hanging upside down, the gesture didn’t come out right. “Point taken. I guess you can keep saying whatever you want, then. That’s really not— whoa, what the fuck are you doing? Dotting my face?”

“No, I’m adding sparkles.” He held the hand mirror in front of Drax’s face, and he nodded approvingly.

“Oh, that’s nice. Add some of those to the vines too.”

Mortimus smiled and lowered the mirror so he could grab his green marker. “Anyway, I was thinking I should skip science. Because Professor Azmael is strict, but not like, too strict. So, it’ll make a point to my peers, but not so much that I get myself into serious trouble. What do you think?” He waited a few seconds, but he didn’t get an answer. “Drax?”

He tore his gaze away from his case of markers to look over at his friend, whose eyes had closed. Drax’s face was bright red, his arms hanging as limply as his hair. Mortimus gasped, scrambling to his feet so he could lift Drax’s back so that his head was higher than his feet again. He dragged his feet, to turn his legs, then leaned him back against the edge of the windowsill. Mortimus poked him in the face slowly.

“Drax? Are you okay?”

He didn’t answer right away, and when he finally spoke, it was only after his face had started to return to a normal color. “Finish… the… flowers…”

So instead of doing the smart thing and helping his friend who was so obviously in a terrible state, Mortimus grabbed his green marker and worked on finishing his masterpiece.

//

By the time they made it to the end of the class period, Ushas was so sick of Meddes that she wanted to throw him out the window. Luckily, Millennia was there to stop her, and kept her from doing anything rash. Rallon wasn’t helpful at all, though, and just sat behind them tapping his leg like the annoying idiot he was.

At first, Ushas had been able to ignore the child, but then Professor Nange started to talk, and the kid felt the need to butt in every six seconds with an inaccurate comment—okay, some of them were accurate—about whatever logic issue his father was trying to discuss. For a while Ushas thought that she was just being a pretentious shit as per usual; then she saw Millennia roll her eyes and she knew that the kid was officially over the line.

“I know what you’re thinking right now,” said Millennia, as she tapped her roommate on the shoulder, “and don’t. Do not do this.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.” They were still in their seats, gathering their things before they went on their separate ways for their next class periods.

“You’re planning to go to to war with that poor little kid, and it’s not going to end well. Nothing you start ever ends well.”

“Hey, I managed to perfect my aloe solution. It took seventy-six tries and I did severely burn Drax’s arm once, but I did do it. My final product healed his arm without a stitch. Mostly. It would have if he didn’t keep washing it off because he thought it felt weird.”

“Stop trying to change the conversation.” Rallon stopped in between them, the expression on his face a mixture of concern and annoyance. “Millennia is right, Ushas. You can’t do this. He’s just a little kid, and Professor Nange with destroy you do anything that could upset his kid. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s ridiculously overprotective. I mean, he has like twelve pictures of that kid just on his desk.”

Millennia nodded. “That’s true. He loves that kid a hell of a lot more than he cares about you and I’m fairly certain he won’t hesitate to fail you over something like this.”

“One, I wouldn’t get caught, so that wouldn’t happen,” Ushas argued. “And two, he can’t fail me over something like that. You can’t fail students under false pretenses. The Headmaster would override him.”

“That only applies if the Headmaster actually cares.” When the girls turned to look at him, Rallon shrugged lamely. “Not that I would know that, of course. It’s probably worth a shot. Never mind. I really shouldn’t be a part of this.”

He hustled off down the hallway, leaving Millennia alone with her roommate. “Okay,” she said, crossing her arms, “seriously, though. What are you going to do?”

“Well,” Ushas answered, a grin creeping up her lips, “I was thinking it might go a little something like this…”

//

“…even if they had them, I wouldn’t trust anything inside.” Theta’s voice was flat and annoyed, more than ready for their discussion to turn to something else. “I mean, seriously. Be honest here. I know that you like vending machines, but would you actually buy something from a Scendeles machine? That both benefits them, and potentially poisons you. Don’t do it, Kos.”

Koschei groaned. Technically him and Theta were in study hall at that moment, so they weren’t supposed to be discussing anything, but the period got boring incredibly quickly, so they were speaking in hushed voices while everyone else worked. As far as they discovered, the two of them had vastly differing opinions about what to do with the money that they found and had yet to come to any sort of an agreement on it.

“I guess you have a point,” Koschei agreed reluctantly. “Plus, it would be a pain to have to sneak over there just to buy the candy bars. Wait! We could sneak out of the Academy to get the candy bars.”

“For god’s sake, Kos.” Theta slapped a hand against his face before he finished his thought. “Stop talking about vending machines! We’ve already established that those are a terrible idea, and incredibly inconvenient, so we need to come up with something else. You coming up with more ways to find them is not helping.”

“Fine, okay. It’s just that I’ve only actually had one other idea, but I didn’t think that it was a very good one, so I didn’t want to share it. Nor did I want to admit to the fact that I only had one other idea.”

“What was your other idea?”

He shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “I’d rather not say.”

“Oh, come on,” Theta begged. “Now you have to tell me! Come on. I’m sure that whatever it is, it can’t be as bad as you’re imagining.”

“It’s worse.” His bright blue eyes went wide, and he shook his head slowly.

“Yeah, right. Tell me!”

Koschei swallowed hard and took a deep breath before he managed to make the words leave his mouth. “Well,” he began, “I was thinking that we might possibly be able to use it on the—” he leaned in closer to Theta’s ear, then finished his sentence in a hushed whisper “—black market.”

“What?!” Theta gasped and pulled away from him. The word came out loudly, and he made sure to lower his voice before he spoke again. “What do you think we’re going to buy from there? Weapons? Poison?”

He rolled his eyes. “No. I was thinking maybe, you know… drugs?”

“Holy shit, Kos! I’m not going to buy drugs with this money. I know that I shot down your vending machine ideas, but I was actually a lot more on board with that. I actually really wanted to have some candy or soda or something, I just knew that the plan would never pan out since we don’t actually have a vending machine available to us right now.”

“Okay, so we won’t buy drugs. We’ll do that another time. Don’t give me that look, Thete. You know what kind of messes we get ourselves into. Someday we’ll probably sneak out to a bar or something and do all kinds of shit. I understand you not wanting to do it already, though. You should probably wait on the alcohol until you hit puberty.”

“I’ve grown four inches already,” he snapped. “Stop making those stupid jokes about me.”

“It’s not about your height, Theta. It’s about the way you act. And right now, you still remind me of that little kid who won the hide-and-seek championships forty-two years in a row.”

Theta only rolled his eyes in response.

//

“So, did you do it?”

Mortimus shook his head lamely. “No,” he sighed. “I had it all planned and everything, but then I was helping Drax with something and we almost killed him by accident, so I had to take him to the nurse.”

“What the fuck did you do?” asked Vansell, his face twisted in confusion.

“Never mind that.” Magnus waved a hand around dismissively. Instead of eating lunch he was working on something on his laptop, which he tore his attention away from. “What happened is that you chickened out. There is no reason that you needed to stay with Drax while he was with the nurse, and there is no way in hell that he would try to stop you from doing something stupid. Therefore, you freaked out and decided not to skip.”

He hesitated. “I did not freak out. I mean, I did, but only because Drax was in really, really bad shape. The reason I stuck around at the nurse’s office was because I wanted to know if he was okay. You didn’t see him, guys. His face was red as a fucking beet. And apparently the marker smell wasn’t helpful.”

“Marker?”

“Long story.” Mortimus waved a hand around dismissively. “Anyway, I had a perfectly legitimate reason for not doing it. Plus, I still did kind of skip class. Of course, I had a note from the nurse that said it was okay that I was fifteen minutes late, but I still missed that fifteen minutes, right? I’m practically a rebel. Can we get on with it now? I think I’ve done enough.”

“You have not done enough.” Vansell slapped a hand down onto the table. “You’ve not done anything. I know as a fact that you’ve already missed classes on multiple occasions, you’ve just always had a note to get out of it. How is this any different from that?”

“Because I wasn’t trying to cut class back then, so it didn’t count.”

“Still though. This isn’t a new experience, which I thought was the entire point of cutting class? To be on a level playing field with Drax and I?”

He looked shocked. “That wasn’t the point of it! Yeah, I wanted to experience something new, but I didn’t do it just because you and Drax already have.”

“You literally told me that you did, though,” said Magnus. He gave Mortimus a look and glanced around at his other friends as well. “That’s what he said when he messaged me earlier. He told me that he was planning to cut class because Drax and Vansell already did it before and he didn’t want to seem like a chump. Not those exact words, but that was the gist of it.”

“Thanks for telling everyone, you asshole,” Mortimus snapped. “Now they’re all going to know that I’m just a copycatter.”

“Did you literally just say ‘copycatter?”

He ignored the comment. “Anyway, I’m definitely still going to skip something. Not necessarily science class, since I already missed it once and it would be weird to miss it twice, but something. Maybe with a stricter professor, so it seems riskier? Yeah, another class, probably. I think I’m going to go to that lecture thing.”

“That makes one of us,” said Vansell.

//

Ushas thought that she had seen the end of Meddes when she walked out of logic the day before, but unfortunately, she was wrong. Professor Bappal was on time the next day, and he had his stupid child at his side. If it was possible, the kid looked even dumber and smugger than he had the day before, and Ushas was ready to punch him in the nose. Luckily for her, Millennia tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention, then shook her head as if to convince her that whatever idea she was thinking of wasn’t going to work and/or would end badly.

Unlike the day before, Rallon was no longer tapping his foot annoyingly, and instead sat behind them as quietly as possible. She silently judged him for that, knowing that his reason for it was that he feared her, but she didn’t say anything to him. Everyone knew that he had a big crush on Millennia—except for her, of course—and Ushas wasn’t cruel enough to embarrass him in front of her.

“Good morning, class.” Professor Bappal dropped his bag beside his desk, then directed his son to an extra seat at the front of the room. He continued to drone on about logic, problems, and logic problems, all things which Ushas found interesting. She listened intently up until something smacked her in the nose.

She turned down to see what had fallen onto her desk, then frowned when she found a tiny ball of crumpled paper sitting there. Before she had a chance to identify where the paper had come from, another one hit her in the eyebrow, and she snapped her head up to identify the launch point. There was nothing in front of her that looked like it could have fired the tiny balls, but that alone led to her realization that only one person could possibly be behind the shots.

Meddes didn’t even smile when Ushas looked over at him. He crossed his arms and shrugged arrogantly, then leaned back and turned his attention over to his father, who was still droning on about something regarding logic. Ushas turned to Millennia to ask for help, but her friend didn’t comply. She made a point of averting her eyes, which led Ushas to go to her last resort—Rallon. She realized that was a dead end as soon as she noticed that he was sleeping in his seat.

Before she had a chance to figure out what her next move was, another ball hit her square in the forehead. Ushas glared at the stupid little kid, and he smiled back before showing her a tiny weapon. It was clearly homemade and had an ammunition container filled up with tiny paper balls exactly like the ones that had struck her in the head. Meddes grinned, then shot one more paper ball at her before he lowered his weapon so that his father wouldn’t be able to see it anymore.

Somehow, despite the fact that his gesture was huge and glaringly obvious, Ushas seemed to be the only one who saw him show off his gun. Not even Millennia, who was sitting directly beside her in the front row, noticed him, and thus left Ushas on her own to battle the little idiot. She reached into her backpack beneath the table, pulled out a spare pencil, and launched it at Meddes from under the table.

Her aim was poor, and by all reasonable standards she shouldn’t have hit him, but she did. Meddes scooted just far enough over that when the pencil got close enough to hit him, the eraser struck him square in the forehead. He cried out dramatically, clearly exaggerating how hard the impact actually was, and collapsed onto the floor beside his chair. He clutched his stomach and curled into a ball, as if he was in great pain.

Professor Bappal gasped and knelt beside him. “Son?” he said, poking him repeatedly. “Son, are you all right? Son?”

“That horrible girl threw a knife at my head!” Meddes cried, false tears streaming down his face. He grabbed the pencil off the floor beside him and held it up to show his father. “This almost killed me!”

Ushas looked shocked. “It was a pencil.”

“I told you that something was going to go horribly wrong.” Millennia slapped her across the shoulder and leaned away in her seat, trying to stay out of the line of fire.

“I don’t— It was a pencil! It slipped out of my hand. I’m so sorry.” She didn’t look particularly remorseful, nor did she feel it, but she couldn’t risk failing.

“You could have killed my son,” said Professor Bappal. He stood up slowly, leaving his son on the floor as he turned around to look at Ushas. “Get out of my classroom.”

“Please, I didn’t mean to—”

“Get out!”

She gathered her things and ran out of the classroom as quickly as she could, before he dropped back down to his knees and nursed his son as if the child had been shot rather than tapped with an eraser.

//

Theta was awake for most of the night, pondering over what he might do with the money he found. Because of that, he was quite tired during the day itself, and fell asleep at his desk by the time science class rolled around. He didn’t even realize he was out until Professor Azmael walked over to him and tapped him on the shoulder to wake him up at the end of class.

He pushed his messy, dark blond hair out of his face, then wiped the sleep out of his eyes and grabbed his bag. Professor Azmael watched him, to make sure that he got out before he locked the door. When he finally stumbled out into the hallway, Theta found himself greeted by none other than Rallon, who was coincidentally standing on the other side of the hallway.

“Uh, hi,” he said, blinking sleepily.

Rallon turned around several times, as if to check if anyone else was around. “Sorry, were you talking to me?” he asked.

“Duh. Does it look like I know any of these other doofuses?”

“Not really, but how am I supposed to know? Also, you literally never talk to me unless you want something, so it seemed kind of weird that you would just casually greet me like we hang out all the time.”

“We do hang out all the time.”

“No, we don’t. Our friend circles are like a Venn diagram. We overlap slightly in the middle, but you and me really don’t interact all that much. Not unless we really have to. Again, I feel like this is tied to some kind of scheme, so I think it’s probably time for me to duck out now.”

Theta chased after him before he had a chance to run off down the hall. “Wait! Hold on. I need your help. Please? It’s just a question.”

“Fine.” Rallon sighed loudly. “But if this escalates into anything more than that, I’m getting out of here, okay? You know I don’t like getting involved in your crazy schemes.”

“I know, whatever. I won’t get you involved. I just wanted to know… if you found a bunch of money, and you were aching to spend it, but you were also stuck in the Academy with no breaks for ages, what would you spend your money on?”

“I would probably save it until I went on break so that I could buy something that I actually really wanted with it. That or I would just slowly spend it on snacks. You know that the Patrexes have a brilliant smoothie bar?” Theta’s eyes lit up, while Rallon frowned. “That said, I don’t like this theoretical. It sounds an awful lot like you actually did find a whole lot of money, and since there’s not much of that just lying around the place, I feel like you probably stole it or something.”

“No, I didn’t steal it. I found it. That’s why I asked you ‘what would you do if you found it?’ I’m not stupid. I wouldn’t say I found it if I stole it.”

“Unless you were trying to hide the fact that you’re a thief. This really isn’t going to work in your favor no matter what you say, Thete.”

“Yeah, blah, blah, blah.” Theta rolled his eyes. “What were you saying about the Patrexes having a brilliant smoothie bar?”

//

Ushas had to wait ages to finally see the Headmaster, but it ended up working in her favor. She had ample time to plan out what she was going to say, and how to defend herself without anything going onto her record. Unfortunately, the Headmaster was already pissed off when she sat down opposite his desk, and he wasn’t in the mood for her rambles.

“What did you think you were doing?” he asked. “Professor Bappal told me what you said, and I have to say; I normally trust you, but knives don’t just slip out of people’s hands and fly all the way to the front of the classroom.”

“To be fair, we weren’t actually sitting that far apart since I was in the front row,” said Ushas. “And it wasn’t a knife, it was a pencil. Regardless, it was an accident, and he purposefully moved so that it would hit him.”

“Why would he do that?” The Headmaster raised an eyebrow. “That’s one of the worst lies I’ve ever been told, Ushas. There is no reason for a young boy to want to get hit in the head with whatever object you threw at him. It’s just not true. I expect better from you, Ushas. No more lies.”

“No more lies? I never told any lies! You just aren’t smart enough to understand that what I said actually happened. I mean, at this point you should really understand my life. I’m part of the Deca, and weird sh—stuff happens to us all the time. This is honestly one of the more ordinary things that has come out of our group.”

“Now you’re just trying to win me over. Do you want me to give you detention? Because if you need a punishment, I would be happy to give you one.”

“No!” Ushas stood up and slapped her hands down onto the desk, then pulled back upon realizing that it was a stiff exaggeration. She straightened out her robes and sat down slowly. “I mean, uh, no, sir. Please, don’t do this. I will do anything to avoid punishment. Extra homework? Tutoring? Anything. Please. Just don’t let this go onto my record.”

“Tutoring, you say?” The Headmaster smiled. “I might have someone that needs tutoring.”

//

“Oh, my god. Oh, god. Oh, god!”

Theta slapped Koschei across the shoulder. “Shut up, you idiot!” he snapped. “What the hell are you freaking out for?”

“I’m freaking out because there’s so much heliotrope!” He gagged falsely and made a face. “Good god, that is a disgusting color.”

“It’s better than brown.”

“Hardly.” Koschei slid through the door into the smoothie bar, then gasped when he set sight on the beautiful room. It was far more colorful than the plain heliotrope that the Patrexes wore on their robes and reminded him of a tropical paradise. Or at least, what he imagined a tropical paradise might look like. He had never been allowed to go anywhere outside of field trips, of course.

Beside him, Theta too was utterly wowed by what he saw. He had always known that the Patrexes had a special appreciation for aesthetics, but the decor inside of their smoothie bar was truly something else. The rainbow colors were shockingly bright, but also pastel and subdued enough to be beautiful to look at. It perfectly highlighted the clear cups that people were drinking their smoothies out of, spread out across the room.

“Do we fit in?” asked Koschei, leaning in close to Theta.

He glanced down at their basic pants and t-shirts and nodded. “Yeah, we look just like any other Patrexes who just got out of class,” he answered. “And if their smoothie dude is anything like our lunch lady, they’ll never realize that we actually don’t belong here.”

“Shh! Don’t say that out loud. Let’s get in line.”

It was remarkably easy to sneak into the Patrexes’ wing of the Academy, and even easier for them to slip into the line like it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nobody bat an eye at them the entire time they stood there, Koschei gripping onto the wallet like it was the only thing keeping them from being found out. A few students glanced over at them, proving that they were at least smarter than Scendeles in noticing that they weren’t familiar, but nobody tried to stop them.

After several minutes, they made it to the front of the line, and Theta ordered uldana fruit smoothies for both of them. They nearly left then, to get out of there before anyone realized that they weren’t Patrexes, but Koschei made the poor decision to take a sip of his smoothie right after it was served. As soon as the sweet taste touched his tongue, he whipped back around and slapped the rest of his money onto the table.

“Give me as many as this will buy,” he said, “and make it to go.”

The guy took the money and turned around to make the smoothies, while Theta tapped Koschei on the shoulder about thirty-five times. He tapped urgently, rapidly, needing to get his friend’s attention as soon as possible. Finally, Koschei turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised.

“What?” he asked, the look on his face very clearly annoyed. He rubbed his shoulder as if Theta’s poking had injured him.

“What the hell did you just do?” Theta snapped. “You just spent all of our stolen money on a bunch of smoothies that we can’t even drink! Unless you’ve got enough space in your stomach for seventy-six smoothies?”

“No, I’m going to freeze them. Then it’ll be like that sherbet or whatever that Mortimus likes so much.”

“Oh, no.” He shook his head, the most appalled expression on his face. “No, Kos. Those are not going to freeze the same way. You have no idea what’s going to happen to it!”

“Whatever.” Koschei shrugged, as if he truly didn’t care about what he had done. “It’s not like we had anything else to spend the money on anyway. Don’t get all pissy about this, Theta. It’s really no big deal.”

“No big deal? Oh, it’s no big deal? Look, it’s probably not even that good.” Theta took a sip of his smoothie, and then his eyes went wide. “Holy shit. Buy ten more of them.”

“I just bought seventy-six. Is that not enough? We have no more money, Thete.”

“We. Need. More.”

Koschei swallowed hard. “We’ve created a monster.”

//

“Come on, Mort. You got this.”

He nodded quickly and shook himself off, much more than he realistically needed to. “Oh, yeah. I can skip class. I’m not afraid of anything!”

“You’re literally not moving.”

Drax and Mortimus turned around to look at Vansell, who was standing behind them in the hallway with his arms crossed. Mortimus looked down at his shoes when he spoke, while Drax just gave him a look.

“So?” he snapped. “Don’t be so bitter, it’s his first time. Why do you even hang around us?”

He shrugged. “I don’t even know anymore.”

“Well, shoo. You’re ruining his first time ditching class, and it’s bumming me out. You know I had to skip maths to be here right now?”

Mortimus whipped around to look at him. “Wait! You told me that you had a free period. You’re actually here because you’re cutting class too? Shit, mate, you’re stealing my thunder!”

“I’m not—!” Drax rolled his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not ‘stealing your thunder’, you idiot. One, I’m cutting a totally different class. Two, my teachers expect it, so it’s nothing new. Nobody’s going to say ‘oh, shit! Drax cut class like a badass!’ They’re just going say, ‘oh, he didn’t do his homework and ran away from the consequences again.’ That’s not even remotely stealing your thunder.”

“That’s true,” said Vansell.

Drax blinked, then turned his head and pointed a finger at him casually. “Didn’t I tell you to fuck off?”

“Not with those exact words.”

“Regardless, you’re ruining the fun, so go please.”

“I’m ruining the fun?” Vansell gasped dramatically, a reaction that Drax instantly knew was phooey. “Are you shitting me right now? You’re literally not even doing anything. And what do you think you’re going to do? You’re already cutting class by not being in there right now, so what else is there for you to do?”

Mortimus’s eyes went wide. “Wait, I’m missing class? No!”

He turned around and darted into the nearest classroom as soon as possible. Drax whipped around to look at Vansell in shock and raised his hands in a gesture that more than insinuated that Vansell had done something wrong.

“Look what you did, dumbass!” he cried.

Vansell knew that the look on his face was just as confused as he felt. “What? What did I do?”

“You ruined my entire plan, and now he’s quit again. God, Van. You’re just the worst sometimes.”

He didn’t get a chance to come up with a response before Drax took off down the hallway, leaving Vansell alone to ponder over his so-called mistake.

//

On all the levels that weren’t obsessed with grades and education, Ushas wanted to stay far away from the arranged tutoring session that evening. Unfortunately, the part of her that cared about good grades was far stronger than the rest, and she somehow found herself in the library anyway. Luckily for her, she had a fantastic roommate who agreed to sit nearby in case the student she was tutoring ended up being someone like Dourgonn or Lungin.

That was the worst kind of person she imagined might show up, which was why she was so unprepared for Meddes to walk through the door.

She hadn’t noticed it before, since she only saw him walk in and out of the classroom, but even his stride was cocky to the point of annoyance. She again felt the need to punch him but restrained herself upon remembering that Millennia was sitting only a few tables away.

Meddes pulled a chair back at the table Ushas was sitting at, then sat down slowly, never breaking eye contact on his way down. He somehow managed to maintain that same contact while he grabbed his notebook and pen, then placed them onto the table in front of them. He didn’t pull out any sort of textbook, however, and Ushas groaned.

“You need to get out your science book,” she said flatly.

He snorted and raised his eyebrows. “Do you literally think you’re going to tutor me?”

“That is what the Headmaster told me I’m here to do.”

“And you just blindly believed him?” Meddes laughed heartily. “Oh, lord. You’ll never last a day in the real world, you pathetic excuse for an Academy student.”

“Yeah? And who are you?” she snapped, narrowing her brown eyes. “You’re not even out of primary school yet and you think that you can tell me how I’m going to hold up in society? You have no concept of what it’s going to be like to live without your father staring over your shoulder and kissing all your boo-boos.”

“Hey, I’m not a baby. It’s not my fault that I got stuck with a dummy like him for a dad. It’s not like I asked for ridiculously overprotective parents.”

Ushas didn’t even blink. “Although you seemed quite keen for him to coddle you like a child when I nearly killed you with that pencil. Or, sorry, I meant knife, as you so exaggerated. Little bitch.”

“You’re a mean lady,” Meddes said bluntly.

“Oh, I’ve never heard that one before,” she replied sarcastically. “If we’re going to be stuck together for an hour can we at least pretend that we’re working? Because unlike lazy, ignorant you, I have homework to do.”

Meddes glanced over his shoulder, then immediately began tearing up upon seeing that they did, in fact, have an audience. “You’re the worst tutor ever!” he cried dramatically. He grabbed his stuff and shoved it into his bag quickly, which he grabbed and slung over his shoulder. “Leave me alone!”

He ran out of the library, sobbing the whole way out. The librarian followed him, glaring back at Ushas on her way. Millennia walked over once Meddes was long gone and sat down in the dark wooden chair he had been sitting in only moments ago. She raised an eyebrow, the rest of her face crinkling in concern.

she asked, her voice more startled than Ushas had ever heard before. “I know that you don’t like him, but he’s just a little kid. You can’t be that mean to him.”

“I didn’t even say anything that bad!” Ushas exclaimed. “He’s exaggerating so— oh, god. I’m going to get in such big trouble for this.”

She dropped her head into her hands, while Millennia sighed and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, I’m very certain you are.”

//

To say that Ushas was unbelievably pissed off would be an accurate statement. Drax had been laughing at her for a good ten minutes, and there seemed to be no end in sight. When she woke up that morning, Ushas had absolutely no plans to discuss what happened with Meddes. Unfortunately, both Rallon and Millennia knew about it, and though they were incredibly nice, they weren’t nice enough to let her get away with keeping the whole thing a secret from their friends. As such, they spent the first half of the Deca’s weekly meeting talking about the one and only thing that Ushas wanted nobody to know about.

Most of the Deca reacted to it like any other story, but Drax in particular found it extremely humorous, and spent almost the entire meeting slapping his knee and crying from laughing so hard. Ushas always knew that he hated her, but she never realized that he hated her that much. Even though it was rather humiliating, it was almost an eye-opening experience for her, and she wondered if she might need to treat Drax a little bit better.

She decided not to when he coughed out an insult between laughs.

“Yeah, I have to help tutor for real now,” Ushas confirmed, once Millennia had gone through her story, “but it’s not a big deal. Meddes doesn’t even really need tutoring so he’s not going to be one of the people that I’m working with. Plus, he’s getting punished for lying about how smart he is and about what actually happened, and Professor Bappal is in trouble for bringing him into class in the first place. So, while this all seems like it sucks for me, a lot of it actually worked out in my favor.”

Drax snorted. “You’re just saying that because you don’t want to admit to how much of a momentous failure this was. I mean, god! How embarrassing is that? I think it’s the first time you’ve managed to get into trouble entirely on your own in decades! I mean, assaulting a child? I can’t believe you did something like that.”

“I did not assault a child,” she snapped. “It was a pencil and it slipped out of my hand.”

“You threw it at his forehead!” said Millennia, throwing her hands into the air.

She shook her head. “It just looked like it from the angle you were sitting at. That’s not what really happened.”

“The angle? Really? I was sitting directly beside you, Ushas. Rallon was there too and I’m sure he can back me up on what happened.”

Rallon, who was sitting a row behind and to the left of her, nodded. “Yeah, I was only like, half-awake, but it definitely hit him literally in the middle of the forehead. It was the eraser, so he definitely overreacted, but it still hit him in the face. Nothing slips and then flies four feet into the air; at least, not in this universe.”

“You aren’t helpful at all.” Ushas glared at the two of them then whipped her hair across her shoulder and leaned back against the desk at the front of the room. “Anyway, dare I ask what else has been happening with you idiots over the past week?”

“Well, we’re doomed to have smoothies with every meal for the next month,” said Theta, sending a sideways glare at Koschei. “And while they may have been delicious at first, they’re really starting to get old now. Literally.”

“Oh, fuck you, Thete.” Koschei reached over and slapped him in the arm. “You love those smoothies, frozen and chunky or fresh and smooth. Smoothie? Shit. I just got that. Anyway, it’s not like we had anything else to spend our money on anyway.”

“We could have tried out some other flavors, at least.” He rolled his eyes. “What did you do with that wallet anyway?”

“I don’t know. I think it might still be in my bag. Hold on.” He reached into the bag beside his chair and dug through it for a minute before pulling out the wallet they had found only days earlier. Unfortunately, he lifted it upside down, and the remaining contents slipped out. “Oh, hey, there was an ID in there.” Koschei grabbed it off the floor and turned it over, and his jaw dropped. “Theta, what the hell? This is your wallet!”

“What?!” Theta’s eyes went wide, and he whipped around to snatch the ID out of Koschei’s hand. He gasped upon realizing that it was, in fact, his wallet. “What the fuck? You spent all of my money on smoothies?”

“You told me that it was someone else’s wallet!”

“I thought that it was!”

“How? How the hell did you think this was— wait, you didn’t even slip on anything the other day. You tripped over air and then blamed it on the wallet, which slipped out of your pocket on the way down!”

Theta gasped again. “I did not trip over nothing. How stupid do you think I am?”

“Pretty stupid to not realize that this was your wallet.”

They launched into an intense staring contest, glaring at each other as if they had never been friends at all. While no one dared to say a word, the room was not silent, as Drax was still dying of laughter in his seat. Koschei let him get away with it for a minute before he finally broke eye contact with Theta and turned around to look at the person he used to call a friend.

“What are you laughing at, you idiot?” he snapped.

“Nothing,” Drax answered through chuckles. “It’s just that you two have managed to achieve a new level of stupidity that I didn’t even know existed.”

“There is no level of stupidity that you haven’t seen before,” said Koschei. “You’ve met Mortimus, right? Or Epsilon! I believe you’ve even had to speak to Scendeles in the past.”

“I’m not comparing you to Scendeles, you moron. I’m talking about a new level in terms of Prydonians. I’m not stupid. And speaking of, where the hell is Mortimus?”

Everyone stopped for a second then and glanced around the room as if to make sure that he actually wasn’t there. Once they had all confirmed it, Magnus sat up in his seat and looked towards his group of friends.

“What’s he been up to this week anyway?” he asked. “He hasn’t been babbling to me as much as he usually does. Which is a relief, don’t get me wrong, but out of the ordinary.”

Vansell shrugged. “Nothing too odd, as far as Mort goes. He was trying to get up the courage to skip class, I believe?”

“Shit, he still never did that?”

“Nope. Turned out to be too chicken, I suppose.”

“Ah, well.” Magnus pushed a stray lock of hair out of his face and pulled it behind his ear. “He’s always been a bit of a weakling.”

Ushas didn’t quite agree, nor did she have anything to say on the matter, which was exactly why she stood back up and crossed her arms in an assertive manner. She waited for everyone to look at her, and clapped her hands to get their attention when they inevitably did not.

“Can we switch our topic to something else now?” she said, the question coming out as more of a demand. “This really isn’t helping to further our meeting in the least.”

“Aw, does someone not like us making fun of Mortimus?” Magnus replied sarcastically.

“I don’t like any of us making fun of any of our friends in this circumstance. It’s not progressive.”

“Did you literally just say ‘progressive’?” Koschei shuddered. “You’re starting to sound like Dourgonn.”

Theta gave him a look. “What is it with you and Dourgonn?”

He didn’t get the chance to respond before the door suddenly opened up, and none other than Mortimus stuck his head into the room. He didn’t walk all the way in, but just enough that they could all see up to his shoulders. The look on his face was a mix between fear, excitement, and something else that was hard to identify.

“Hey, guys,” he said, his messy hair swinging in front of his face and tickling his ears. “I just wanted to make sure that you all knew I’m playing hooky from the meeting today. Who’s the chicken now, huh? Can’t be me, since I’m not in there! You all thought that I was too lame to actually cut class, but you were wrong. Ha ha! Who’s laughing now, bitches?”

“We are, dumbass.” Magnus’s voice had his trademark slight to it, and it almost made Drax snicker again. “One, you didn’t cut class, you just skipped hanging out with your friends. And two, it doesn’t count as playing hooky if you literally walk in here and announce the fact that you’re playing hooky. Half the point of your stunt was supposed to make people think you’re a risk taker, who was out doing some crazy shit or something. This is not that, Mort.”

“Wait, so you’re telling me that I’m not even playing hooky right now? This doesn’t even count?”

“No. It doesn’t count unless you don’t show up at all. Right now, you’re just really late.”

“Well, I— dammit!” Mortimus slid back out the door and slammed it shut behind him.

Magnus waited until he was long gone before he slid his feet onto the desk in front of him, crossed his arms, and puffed his chest out.

“I guess that’s that,” he said. “Do we have any bets on the next stupid thing he’ll try to do?”

Several hands flew into the air.

Chapter Text

Vansell let out an annoyed puff of air when he woke up. It was still dark outside—he could see that all-too clearly through the window above his bed—and yet for some reason, the entire opposite side of his room was lit up. Rallon was sitting on the floor in front of his own bed, with none other than Millennia seated beside him. They were both utterly silent, looking down at something in between them. Vansell sat up and walked over to them, his basic black pajamas and dark hair slipping out of the shadows as he moved.

“What the hell are you guys doing?” he asked, his voice thick with sleep.

Rallon about jumped ten feet into the air when he spoke. “Why are you awake?”

“Because there is a literal sun on your side of the room. That amount of light has a tendency to wake people.” His tone was flat, but the expression he wore was more than mildly pissed. “Since you two don’t seem to be giving me an answer, I’ll ask again. What the hell are you doing?”

“We’re just studying for a test tomorrow,” said Millennia.

“A test? In what class?”

“Judoon,” Rallon answered awkwardly. He stared down at his hands, twiddling his fingers and picking at the dark red rug as if he would rather be anywhere else. “I have a verbal exam tomorrow afternoon, and there’s a few words that I haven’t learned yet, so Millennia was just helping me out.”

“Oh.” On the one hand, Vansell wanted to shout at them for staying up too late, but on the other, he almost felt like applauding Rallon for working hard. “Well, how many words do you still have to do?”

He swallowed hard. “Uh, all of them?”

“What?”

Vansell’s eyes went wide at the same time Millennia whipped her head around to look at him, her eyebrows raised in shock. “You didn’t memorize anything?” she gaped.

“Yeah, there’s something I probably should have told you before you agreed to help me with this.” Rallon rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably, then sighed and turned to face her. “I’ve been taking this class for sixteen years and I’ve never actually studied before.”

“Wait, how? What are you talking about?”

“I had all of these other classes on my plate and this one was never that important to me, so I just faked it? Kind of? And verbal exams have never come up before, so this is the first time that it’s really become an issue. Oh, god.” He dropped his head into his hands. “Now that I’ve said that, it sounds like I’ve really gotten myself into one hell of a situation, yeah?”

Vansell snorted. “How did you even manage to do that?” he asked. “I mean, you literally don’t know anything? Not a lick of Judoon?”

“No. I can’t even say ‘hello’.”

“Rallon!” Millennia’s jaw dropped, and she slapped him with the sleeve of her sweater. “You know that this is actually important, right? You don’t know what kind of stuff you’ll run into in the courtroom.”

“I know, I know,” he groaned. “It was just so boring and dull, and I thought that I could get away with it but clearly I was wrong! God, how did I forget about verbal exams?”

She sighed. “It’s going to be okay, sweetie. We’ll work hard tonight, and you’ll nail it tomorrow. I promise.”

Although it made Rallon smile, promises meant absolutely nothing to Vansell which is the exact reason he already knew that their plan was going to fail horribly.

//

“Ginger? Ginger. Ginger!”

Koschei flung his head up to see who was talking, and nearly screamed when he saw Theta crouching down only inches away from his face. He sat up and leapt out of his bed, stumbling backwards on his way.

“What the hell, Theta?” he snapped. “Are you trying to snog me in my sleep?”

Theta, who was staring slightly south of his face towards the more shirtless part of his body, shrugged and stood up as if he hadn’t been watching his roommate sleep. “Chill out,” said Theta, holding up his hands in defense. “I was just trying to find Ginger. I don’t know where she went.”

“Oh. Well, don’t scare me like that anymore, okay? That was a fucking weird way to wake up.” Koschei grabbed a black t-shirt off the back of his desk chair and pulled it over his head. “Where do you think she went?”

“I don’t know. I just woke up and she wasn’t here. Normally she sleeps on my lap. Also, your shirt is on backwards.”

He glanced down and confirmed that his shirt was, in fact, on backwards before he took it off and flipped it around. “Well, we’d better start looking, I guess. I don’t want to find that cat hiding in my shit tomorrow. Plus, I’m already awake and it’s not like I have anything better to do at this hour.”

“Right. Well, I was thinking that we could start by— oh, shit.”

Theta’s gaze trailed off and landed on the door to their bedroom, which was slid open just the smallest bit. Koschei didn’t need to ask to understand why he was staring at it like that, and he shook his head, his eyes narrowed menacingly.

“No,” he said, grimacing. “No, no, no. You did not let that cat get out of our room. Please, for the love of god, Thete, tell me you didn’t let that cat out of the room!”

“I think I may have let the cat out of the room.”

“Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

//

The fact that Magnus managed to make it all the way through the dormitory without running into Runcible was nothing short of a miracle.

A small part of him wondered if perhaps the hall monitor had deliberately avoided him, since he knew that Runcible was one of the many students who were actively afraid of him. However, that seemed unlikely, as Magnus most likely would have noticed him lurking in the halls regardless.

Because he was so busy thinking about the fact that Runcible was nowhere to be seen, it took Magnus a full ten seconds to realize that the majority of his clothes were lying in the hallway outside of his room. His jaw dropped when he realized it, and he looked down at his stuff in shock.

“What the fuck…?”

Magnus grabbed the door handle and tried to walk in but ended up running straight into the door as it didn’t open. He frowned; it wasn’t normal for Mortimus to remember to lock the door. He decided to deal with that fact later and searched his pocket for his key, then stuck it into the lock. It didn’t turn, and the expression on his face turned into anger rather than confusion. He pounded on the door, and several seconds later it slid open just enough to reveal Mortimus’s head standing there.

“Yes?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Did you need something?”

“What the hell, Mortimus? Did you change the locks or something?”

He shook his head. “No. Why would I change the locks? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Because my key doesn’t work,” Magnus snapped. “What other explanation do you have?”

“Of course your key doesn’t work. This isn’t your room. Why were you trying to use your key on my door, you dummy?” His eyes went wide. “Okay, too far. Took it too far.”

“Yeah, you did. What’s going on?”

“Nothing, I was just talking about the insults. This is same as it always is. Your room isn’t even on this floor. Why are you trying to break in here?”

“Are you literally forcing me to remind you of the fact that we’re roommates?”

Mortimus shook his head. “We’re not roommates,” he said slowly. “I already have a roommate.”

To Magnus’s complete and utter shock, Mortimus slid the door open a little bit more and revealed none other than Epsilon to be sitting on the floor in the middle of their dorm room. Magnus’s jaw dropped and he narrowed his eyes in a menacing manner.

“You better get that idiot out of my room in the next ten minutes or I am going to kill you both.”

Somehow, for once in his life, Mortimus managed to not be scared off. “I don’t understand what you mean. He isn’t even in your room, he’s in his room. Also, why is all of this stuff out in the hallway?”

“Because you threw it out here, dumbass.” Magnus’s eye twitched, and Mortimus swallowed hard.

“Okay, all right, you win. We switched the locks because I didn’t want to stay with you anymore and Epsilon didn’t want to stay with his non-existent roommate, Ummins.”

He took a deep breath. “Look, Mortimus, I want to switch rooms just as much as you. And hell, I’d love to be by myself. But we can’t switch rooms without permission, so right now all you’re doing is getting the lot of us into trouble. So, let me in before someone catches me breaking curfew and get Epsilon out of there before he breaks something.”

“Hm… let me think about it… no.”

Mortimus slammed the door and left Magnus standing on his own in the hallway, trapped with nowhere to go.

//

The only reason Vansell agreed to help Rallon with his disaster was because he was already doomed to be awake the entire night anyway. It had seemed like such a simple thing to do as well—help Rallon learn how to say a few phrases and go on his way. He liked teaching and schoolwork so it shouldn’t have been such a horrible task, but unfortunately, Rallon was far thicker than he knew and seemed to have some sort of a faulty memory.

Millennia had made flashcards, which should have been helpful, but they were proving to be absolutely useless. Rallon really did try his hardest to remember what they said, but Judoon was clearly not his strong suit and he failed almost every time. The one time he did get it right he corrected himself quickly, thinking that he had said the wrong thing, which caused even Millennia to throw a hand in her own face.

“I’m so sorry,” said Rallon, shaking his head. “I didn’t think that I was going to be this bad at this. You guys can go if you want. I’m clearly a lost cause.”

“Don’t worry,” Millennia reassured him, “we’re not going anywhere.”

“Of course not.” Vansell nodded and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Because we can’t. It’s after curfew and we would get caught.”

“Right.” Rallon pushed his arm away.

“If it makes you feel any better,” said Millennia gently, “I’m doing this because I care about you, not because it’s after curfew.”

Vansell smirked. “Believe me, that makes him feel a lot better.”

“Just a normal amount better,” Rallon corrected, shooting him a look. He already felt weird enough about the fact that most of his friends knew about his crush on Millennia, and the last thing he wanted was for her to find out too.

“Right, of course. I must have misspoke.” He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Let’s try to do this again. What word were we on?”

“I think we were trying to figure out how to say ‘bye’. Or was it ‘hi’?”

Millennia grabbed the stack of flashcards and lifted one off the top, then raised an eyebrow. “Neither. You were trying to say ‘good’, apparently.”

“Oh, god.” He slapped a hand against his forehead and sighed loudly. “Why does everything sound the same in Judoon? There are too many o’s!”

“Tho fo sho ro.” Vansell smiled.

“You know I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Yep. I absolutely do.”

Rallon glared at Vansell. Vansell glared at Rallon. Millennia scooted forwards and put a hand in between them to split up the pathetic not-quite fight that they had initiated, her eyebrows raised.

“Seriously?” she said. “This is not helping Rallon memorize anything, guys.”

“Yeah, okay.” Rallon sighed. “Show me another flash card.”

//

Ushas didn’t know who was being loud outside of her dorm at two o’clock in the morning, but she was more than prepared to throttle them. She had little tolerance for rule-breakers, and since it was past curfew, the idiots outside her door were inevitably some of them (unless Runcible had learned how to raise his voice since she had last spoken to him).

At first, she yanked a pillow over her head and tried to drown out the sound, but it wasn’t enough. The footsteps and chatter were too close and too loud and for once she cursed her incredible hearing. She groaned and slid out of bed, then grabbed her red bathrobe off the back of her desk chair and pulled it on. She slid on a pair of slippers as well, before she pulled her door open a crack and poked her head out to see who was there. She wasn’t the least bit surprised by who she saw.

“Theta? Koschei? What the hell are you doing here at this hour?” she snapped, making sure to keep her voice low so as not to alert any other students. “Go back to your room!”

“We can’t,” said Koschei reluctantly. It didn’t make Ushas feel any better about what they were doing, but the unfortunate ‘I’d rather be anywhere else’ expression on his face was slightly reassuring. “We have to find something before everyone else wakes up.”

“What?” Ushas crossed her arms and raised a brow challengingly.

“It’s, uh, nothing,” Theta answered quickly. His dark blond hair was severely messed up, and only got worse as he kept turning his head around to look up and down the hallway. “Just something that I lost. It’s no big deal.”

“Are you sure that it’s no big deal? Because if it was really no big deal that it really shouldn’t matter if someone else finds it first, right?”

“You would think, but you know how we are, Ushas. It’s complicated.”

“Complicated like you’re trying to do a good thing or complicated like you’re rigging some kind of trap to prank me with when I wake up in the morning?” Ushas ignored Theta when he rolled his eyes. “I’m not accusing you of anything, I’m just asking based on your track record. I don’t want to be stepping in anything I shouldn’t be stepping in, if you know what I mean.”

“We’re not trying to prank you,” Koschei reassured her. He too kept glancing up and down the hallway, as if whatever they were looking for was just going to mysteriously appear. “We’re not trying to prank anyone at all. We’re just trying to find the thing that we lost before someone else finds it and the both of us get detention for six years.”

“What could you possibly have lost that would get you into that much trouble?”

“It’s a cat, okay?” Theta confessed. Koschei turned to look at him, his eyes wide, but his friend just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, don’t give me that look, Kos. I know that you think she’s a demon spawn, but we really need all the help we can get if we’re going to find Ginger before it’s too late.”

“I sincerely hope you were referring to the cat when you said, ‘demon spawn’,” said Ushas.

He shrugged. “Can you just please help us look? When I first found Ginger, I promised that I wouldn’t let anyone find out about her and I really don’t want to go back on that.”

“You literally just did,” said Koschei bluntly. “Did you seriously have to tell her about the cat?”

“Yes, I had to tell her about the cat. Go fuck off, Kos. I’m just trying to recruit a bigger team for us. The more eyes we have in the hall, the easier it’ll be for us to find her before everyone else wakes up.”

“Bold of you to assume I’m going to help you.” Ushas narrowed her eyes. “I haven’t agreed to anything and yet you’re acting like we’re already some sort of a team. I only even came out here because you two idiots woke me up and I wanted to shout at you so I could go back to sleep.”

“Whoa, you were sleeping?” Theta looked surprised. “Good god, how do you keep your hair so nice at night? Oh, never mind! Can you just help us look for Ginger? Please? You always help us.”

“And today is an exception. I prefer to help when there’s something in it for me, and there’s really nothing mutually beneficial this time, so sorry. I’m going back to bed. Please keep it down.”

“Wait! I’ll give you a frozen smoothie if you help us.”

She gave him a look. “Really? You still have more of those?”

“Never mind.” He sighed extra loudly and dramatically. “I guess I’d better get back to searching, then. And if I don’t find her, I suppose I’ll just have to let the Headmaster know that you smuggled her into the school as a test subject.”

“What?” Ushas gaped.

“It’s more believable than me finding a wild kitten on the school grounds where there are supposedly no cats, right? I think that’s the cover story I’ll go with. Anyway, I’ll see you later, Ushas. Come on, Kos.”

Koschei grinned and followed Theta down the hallway, then gave him a high-five when Ushas started to trail behind them.

“I hate you guys,” she mumbled.

“We hate you too,” Koschei replied, a grin on his face.

//

Rallon got multiple paper cuts when Vansell threw the flashcards onto the floor, scattering them all around the room. Luckily, Millennia appeared to be unharmed, so it was only him who suffered from the tiny cuts. He didn’t complain, not wanting to be a baby in front of her but went off to grab some band-aids while Vansell dropped his head into his hands.

“How the hell is it even possible to be as stupid as you are?” he asked, letting out a loud sigh. “We have gone over these words about a thousand times at this point and yet somehow you still don’t know what they mean! I know that everything sounds the same in Judoon, but for fuck’s sake, Rallon. ‘Ho-oh’ means ‘hello’! ‘Hello’! Not ‘churro’. Why the hell would it mean ‘churro’?”

“I don’t know.” He wrapped a band-aid around his finger. “I didn’t know what it was, so I just said the first word that came to mind.”

“That’s okay, honey,” said Millennia reassuringly. “We’ll figure this out.”

“No, we won’t.” Vansell rolled his eyes as he shook his head. “It has been ages and he still doesn’t even know how to say hi. Hi. He’s going to fail literally the moment that he walks into the room and Professor Whoever-the-Fuck waves at him because he doesn’t know how to respond. In fact, if I know him at all, he’ll probably freeze up and then immediately run out of the room. I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that happens tomorrow.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Rallon mumbled.

“No!” Millennia ran over to him and put her arms around his shoulders, prompting him to blush profusely. She guided him over to his bed and they sat down, ignoring the grump who was still sitting on the floor with the mess of flash cards. “Don’t let him get to you, Rallon. Just because you’re having trouble with this doesn’t mean that you’re going to fail tomorrow. It just means that we need to work a little bit harder before you have to go to the exam.”

“I can’t possibly work any harder than this. Look at me! I’ve literally never studied Judoon before tonight. I didn’t even listen in class. I always used that period to finish up my other homework.”

She sighed. “It’s okay, we’ll figure this out. You don’t have to be perfectly fluent to pass. You just have to know enough to hold up a conversation for five minutes.”

“That’s not going to happen,” said Vansell. “You’re telling him not to be perfectly fluent, but you’d have to be at least conversationally fluent to do what he needs for his exam and that doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, how have you never had a speaking exam before this? You should have been tested regularly.”

“I was always sick on those days,” Rallon answered awkwardly. “I can’t explain how it happened. It was like a miracle. It’s actually kind of crazy. When I told Millennia the first time her jaw almost hit the floor.”

“It’s true,” she added. “I actually had to use my hand to put it back into place. But anyway, that’s beside the point. We need to get back to studying if this is going to happen.”

“It’s not going to happen,” said Vansell.

“I know that you’re just being honest,” Rallon snapped, “but you’re not helping. You’re really, really not helping. Even if I do go in there and make a complete fool of myself—”

“Which you will.”

“—let me do it with at least a tiny shred of dignity, and with the knowledge of at least a few words.” He stood up from his bed and sat back on the floor, then began to gather up all the flashcards. “Now, who wants to hold these for me?”

Millennia smiled and joined him on the floor, while Vansell let out yet another sigh.

//

Magnus spent a while pacing in the hallway before he figured out what to do next. At first, he considered just punching down the door, walking in, and throwing Epsilon out of the window, but he reconsidered after thinking of all the repercussions that could come from doing something like that. Instead, he ended up walking straight across the hall and knocked on the door. Not too loudly, so as not to alert any of their neighbors, but loud enough to wake up the occupants of the room.

No one answered at first, but after a significant amount of knocking, Drax finally slid open the door. His light brown hair was a mess, his eyes bloodshot, and his dark blue pants crinkled from sleep. He pulled the sleeves of his gray sweater over his hands and brushed them across his eyes before he crossed his arms, raising a single eyebrow.

“What do you want?” he asked, his accent thick with sleep.

“I need your help with something,” Magnus answered. He looked his friend up and down once. “Why do you look so grumpy? You’re always up half the night anyway.”

He rolled his eyes. “Stop talking to Jelpax. Now what the hell do you want from me at three in the fucking morning?”

“Well, it’s a weird story, but basically Mortimus and Epsilon switched the locks on my door and replaced me. Again. So, I need some help getting back in there. Or at least a place to hide out until morning, because I would really rather not be sitting out here all night.”

“So, go sit somewhere else all night. This really isn’t my problem, Magnus.” He tried to close the door, but Magnus slammed a hand on the door frame to stop him. “Please go away. You’re going to wake up Jelpax.”

“Do I look like I care?” he snapped. “I know you have a lock pick. Just help me get back into my room and I’ll leave you alone.”

“I hate you so much.”

Drax turned around and headed over to his desk, then fumbled around for a minute before he grabbed his glasses off the nightstand and slid them onto his face. Magnus always thought it was stupid that he refused to wear them, as if he valued some sort of fashion over the ability to actually see things close up to his face. Regardless, he didn’t say anything, and waited while Drax sifted through the rest of his drawers before he finally found what he was looking for.

He pulled the small case out of his bottom drawer, then placed it onto his desk and opened it up quietly. He searched through the tools inside of it, until he lifted up a small, metal tube the length of a pen with some pointy thing on the end of it.

“Okay, let’s go already.” Drax nodded towards the door and allowed Magnus to take the lead when they left the room, Drax ensuring that the door shut quietly behind them.

He knelt in front of the door across the hall, stuck the pick into the lock, and started to twist it around. Magnus hoped that he would be able to do it quickly, but the lock proved to be a difficult one and they were there for several minutes, up to the point where Magnus got so bored, he decided to speak.

“So, I don’t mean to be a good friend or anything,” he said, keeping his voice low, “but you all right, mate? Just asking because your eyes are all bloodshot.”

“Yeah, that’s because I’m tired,” Drax snapped, continuing to twist the pick around. He didn’t look at it but moved it as if he could feel whatever he was trying to do. “Someone woke me up in the middle of the night.”

“They’re too red to be from that.”

“You know, I try not to say this too much because I know that all of you are just trying to look out for me, but I honestly hate how much you all care about me. At a certain point you just need to let things go. I’m sure that at least some of this is from exhaustion so you might as well just accept the answer and move on. It’s not like you really care anyway.”

“Hey, I act like a dick all the time but that doesn’t mean I’m totally horrible,” said Magnus. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall beside his door. “Look, I wasn’t trying to get into your business, all right? I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay.”

“And it is, not that it’s any of your business, so you can stop talking about this now. Shit!” Drax snapped his hand back, leaving the pick in the lock. He shook it several times before resuming his work. “Sorry, I twisted my wrist too far and something cracked in there. I think it’s all right now.”

“You really don’t give a shit about yourself, do you?” He didn’t get an answer, so Magnus went on. “I’m not saying that you have to be like totally open, but all you’re doing to yourself right now is making things worse.”

“I’m perfectly open, thank you very much. I’m just not open with people who normally spend their time telling me I’m a terrible person.”

“Drax, I know I’m an asshole, but I don’t think you’re a terrible person.”

He snorted. “Right. Name one conversation we’ve had in which you didn’t call me stupid, gay, or a pathetic moody mess.”

“I don’t recall ever saying ‘pathetic moody mess’, but it sounds like something I would have said so I won’t immediately deny it either.” He pushed his hair back. “I call you stupid because you do stupid things, not because I genuinely think that you’re a complete idiot. Although you’re certainly not the smartest person around, no offense. As for the gay comments, those were intended as speculation, not insults. But I do see how they may have come off the wrong way.”

“I really don’t care what you think of me, Magnus.” Drax twisted the pick a few more times and sighed when it didn’t click. “If you think I’m annoying then whatever, I’m just tired of you being a dickhead all the time. Just because you don’t like me doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it.”

Finally, the lock clicked, and he stood up, his eyes locked on Magnus waiting for a reply. He provided one, but it obviously wasn’t what Drax wanted to hear.

“I don’t say this stuff because I don’t like you, I say it because I’m a critical person. I do it to everyone. You want to know the truth? Yeah, I do think you’re kind of a moody mess, and you’re not very smart, and you fit about half of every gay stereotype I’ve ever heard of. But I don’t like you any less for it. I just have a natural tendency to point out people’s flaws.”

“And that’s why we’re never going to get along.” He ran a hand through his bangs, smoothing out the sleepy tangles. “Because I might be a stupid moody weirdo, and yeah, I’ve said some shit things to you because you’re an asshole. But I would never tell Theta that he acts like a three-year-old, I would never tell Millennia that she’s an absolute pushover, and I would never, ever tell Jelpax that his hobbies are painfully fucking dull. I look past people’s flaws. You get stuck on them and instead of telling people what you love, you tell them what you hate. And maybe you don’t care, but that makes other people feel like shit.”

“Drax—”

“No, listen to me. You think that you’re all high and mighty, but you’re not. You’re praying on people’s weaknesses. You think I don’t know that I’m moody? Or skinny? Or stupid? I know that, Magnus, and that’s everything that I hate about myself. I already know about my flaws. I already know that I’m a terrible excuse for a person, and I don’t need someone else to throw that in my face. I need someone else to tell me that I’m great so that I won’t worry about all the things that make me want to throw myself off a cliff. But you don’t do that. You say, ‘see all these things you hate about yourself? I hate them too!’ and that fucking rips people apart.”

“You’re twisting my—”

“I’m twisting nothing. We’re done. I’m going back to bed now. Good luck getting rid of Epsilon.”

Drax turned around and walked back into his room, not sparing Magnus one last glance before he disappeared behind the door.

//

Although he was momentarily thrown off his game by Drax’s sudden outburst, Magnus didn’t hesitate to barge into his room the moment that he left. He had no more patience remaining, and he wanted to get his room back as soon as possible (specifically, before the other students woke up and trampled all his clothing). He slid the door open quickly and put on the most menacing face that he had, expecting to find Mortimus and Epsilon still standing there smugly.

Instead, they were sitting on the floor, surrounded by Uno cards and disposable coffee cups. He furrowed his brow and looked around the room. His side was mostly untouched, thankfully, but Mortimus’s looked even messier than normal. It surprised him that it was even possible to achieve that.

“What the hell are you guys doing?” asked Magnus, his words coming out more confused than angry.

“We’re playing crazy eights,” Epsilon answered, gesturing to the cards. “What does it look like we’re doing?”

Mortimus turned to him, an odd expression on his face. “Wait, no. We’re playing Uno.”

“Oh, my god. We’re playing Uno? Huh. Well, that explains why this game has made no sense. Oh well, I guess. Why is Magnus in here?”

“I don’t know. Should we ask him?” Epsilon nodded, so he looked back to his actual roommate. “Hey, what are you doing in our room? We told you to go away.”

“I can’t go away, you idiot,” said Magnus. He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. “This is my room and it’s after curfew. Regardless of what you want, or I want, or anything else, we can’t switch roommates because this is how it was assigned. Believe me, if it was possible to change, I would have done so a long time ago.”

“Yeah, I know.” Mortimus gave him a bitter look. “You told me the story of what you did the first time we met. That was a low blow, dude. Low, low blow.”

“Who cares? Take one look at your side of the room and you’ll understand why I did it. It’s not like I had some kind of personal vendetta against you yet.”

“Yet? Oh, I knew you didn’t like me! What have I ever done to you, Magnus? All these years I’ve never been anything but nice and yet you still hate me for some reason.”

Magnus stared at him. “You think that you’ve never done anything to me? God, Mortimus, you make my life hell. You spend twelve hours a day babbling to me about shit I honestly couldn’t care less about, and you never stop doing idiotic things that’ll inevitably get you in trouble. I try to stay out of it but of course, you’re my fucking roommate and you think that means we’re friends so no matter where I go, I’m bound to find you there too. It drives me insane. Actually, literally insane.”

“I wouldn’t call you insane,” said Epsilon. “That’s probably an exaggeration.”

“Of course, it’s an exaggeration. I’m not saying that I’m actually clinically insane. I’m just saying that sometimes Mortimus makes me want to jab a fork through my own skull just to get away from him for a few days.”

“That’s an interesting concept for a viral challenge.” Mortimus reached over and grabbed a notebook and pen from his pile of garbage and wrote something down. “Sorry, I’m working on a project. Anyway, sorry if I’ve made you hate your life. I’m only trying to make you enjoy it a little bit more.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Magnus sneered, “but I don’t care. You are so utterly oblivious to the world around you that you think you can change things, but you can’t. You can’t make me be a happier person. You can’t make me enjoy my life more. All you can do is leave me alone, which will automatically give me just that much more pleasure. I like silence. I like being alone. But you’re just too thick to understand that.”

“I’m not oblivious to the world, I just choose to spend my time in the happier parts of it.”

“Yeah, that’s called living in your own little bubble, and it’s ridiculous. That’s not appreciating the happier parts of life or whatever, that’s ignoring real life.”

Mortimus shrugged. “We have our own opinions, I suppose, but this is why I was trying to replace you. I’d rather not live with this kind of negativity in my life when I could be spending time with people who want to be a little bit more like me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to be happy all the time,” Epsilon agreed, reaching over to give Mortimus a fist-bump.

“No, there isn’t.” Magnus sighed, and tried to find a way to phrase what he was trying to say in a way that would actually get through to the idiots. “You two can do whatever you want, but I don’t want it to interfere with my life. So, go get my stuff and put it back in my closet. Epsilon, you can stay here for the night, but I want you out of here in the morning. Understand?”

“This sucks,” he groaned. He stood up and started to gather Magnus’s things. “I don’t want to go back to having Ummins as my roommate. He’s such a prat.”

“Oh, get over it,” said Mortimus, reluctantly following him out of the room. “He’s not even real.”

//

Had he known that Jelpax had been awake from the get-go, Drax probably wouldn’t have done what he did when he walked back into his room.

Instead of crawling back into his bed, Drax slid down against the door, pulling his knees up to his chest. He took a long, deep breath, and ran both hands through his hair. He would never openly admit to the fact that he feared Magnus, but after his outburst, he felt physically sick to his stomach. A small part of him felt good about the fact that he was able to stand up for himself, but the bigger part knew that he had only done it because he was half-asleep and just woke up from a nightmare.

Because Magnus was so unpredictable, the possibilities of what might happen next were endless. He might never mention it again, he might berate Drax for it the next day, or he might get petty and just generally make his life hell. No matter what, Drax felt like he had doomed himself to a life where he would never want to leave his dorm room again.

He took another deep breath and relaxed his shoulders. He knew that he was freaking out over nothing again, and he was determined to not let it get the better of him. He just needed to take a few minutes to relax, calm down, and accept the fact that he was making a big deal out of nothing.

After a few minutes, Drax started to feel a little bit better, so he stood up and walked over to his bed. He dug through his pillows, pushing them aside in his search, but stopped when he heard a voice.

“Don’t get the pig-bear.”

He turned around to look at Jelpax, who was sitting up on his own bed, and adjusting the glasses he had probably just put on his face. Drax didn’t say anything to him when they locked eyes, so Jelpax made a waving gesture and nodded for him to come over. Drax hesitated, then walked over and paused for just a second before he flopping backwards onto Jelpax’s bed.

“Sorry I woke you up,” he mumbled. “Everything is all right, I just worked myself up into a rage and kind of told off Magnus.”

“Really?” Jelpax looked surprised, but pleased. “Well, good for you, mate. You’ve needed to do that for a long time.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. I ran off before he could say anything back to me, and I’m fairly certain he’s going to kill me tomorrow. Oh, and if you want a quick laugh before you go back to sleep, apparently Mortimus has locked him out of his room. That’s why I got up in the first place. He needed me to pick the lock.”

He chuckled and lay down beside Drax. “It actually astounds me how many ridiculous situations we manage to get ourselves into.”

“We have got a real knack for finding strange things, haven’t we?” he said, turning to look at Jelpax.

“That we have. That we have.”

//

“Ginger?” Theta called quietly. He felt like he had walked through every corridor about six times by then, but he still hadn’t found his cat. He could hardly believe that she had gotten so far away in so little time, but she had. Somehow, the tiny cat completely disappeared within the five or so minutes that Theta had left the door open.

It was only at that moment that Theta realized he actually had no idea how long the door had been open. Ginger could have crawled out hours ago, in which case someone else might have even come across her first. The thought made his heart skip a beat, and he picked up his pace as he walked around the halls. He kept his hopes up, believing that she had to still be wandering around somewhere; he just had to find her before it was too late.

On the other side of the dormitory, Koschei and Ushas were not keeping so positive. In fact, they were both so utterly done looking for the cat that they had stopped and decided to walk together instead, in an attempt to at least make it more interesting. Luckily, they had at least passed Runcible’s hour, so they didn’t have to worry about him anymore, although they still had to be quiet to make sure that they wouldn’t wake anyone else up.

“So, think we’re going to find this cat anytime soon?” asked Koschei casually.

Ushas gave him a look before shaking her head. “We have absolutely no chance of finding that cat. The dormitory is far too large, and there are far too many people. I’m sure that it’s either gotten lost or gotten kidnapped by this point. Honestly, it’s for the best, though. It’s better that the Headmaster thinks a stray walked into the dormitory when the door was open rather than that you and Theta have been housing it for however long.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true.” He sighed. “She was kind of starting to grow on me, though. It’s almost hard to believe that I thought she was going to eat me at first.”

“How could you possibly think that a cat was going to eat you? They’re tiny.”

“I know, and she was even smaller back then because she was still a kitten! I think I told Theta that her stomach was bigger on the inside or something? I don’t even know. It was rather ridiculous, if I’m being honest.”

“Yeah, it is.” Ushas laughed, and it was such a genuine sound that it rather shocked Koschei. He knew then that she must have been overtired. “I mean, I know that cats are rather vicious, but how could you possibly be afraid of those little fluffy animals?”

He shrugged. “I really don’t know. It’s safe to say I’ve gotten over my fear by now.”

“You better have. Otherwise I’d be worried you’d finally found something that scares you more than me, and that’s a frightening thought.”

“Wow.” Koschei stopped walking and gave her a look. “Wow, you did not just say that. I’m not afraid of you, Ushas. You’re not scary to me in the least. Who do you think you are?”

“I think I’m someone who has a surprising amount of authority over you.” She smiled and flicked him on the forehead before continuing her stride down the hallway.

He threw up his hands in exasperation, then chased after her, not entirely certain of why he was grinning. “You do not have any authority over me.”

“Oh, don’t I?” Instead of continuing straight down the hallway, she took a hard left and headed down one of the corridors. “We’re going this way now.”

“Well, that’s just not fair. I could do the same thing to you and you would have to follow me too, otherwise we would have to abandon our conversation and that would kinda suck.”

“Right, well, if you turned, I would just do that. Our conversation isn’t that valuable to me. However, it is valuable to you, and that’s what I’ll always have hanging over your head.”

“Fuck you, Ushas.” Koschei said that jokingly, as if he wasn’t truly upset in the least.

She smirked. “Absolutely not.”

His eyes went wide, and he opened his mouth to say something, but before he could come up with a response, Theta came barreling down the hallway at full speed, waving his arms in the air frantically.

“He found Ginger!” he said, far too loudly for the current hour. “He found Ginger! He found Ginger!”

Koschei put his hands on Theta’s shoulders in an attempt to calm him down. “Hey, chill out. What are you talking about? Who found Ginger?”

“Professor Borusa! I was just walking down the corridor looking for her and then I saw him holding her. He didn’t see me, but I saw him, and he had her, and now I don’t know what to do!”

“I do.” Koschei glanced at Ushas. “Guys, we got to haul ass. If he sees us out here breaking curfew then he’s going to know who did this, guaranteed.”

“Shit, you’re right.” She turned her head to look around the hall, ensuring it was clear. “Go, go, go!”

Theta, Koschei, and Ushas took off down the hallway, trying to get back to their rooms as quickly as they could. Theta in particular was poor at keeping his feet quiet as he stepped, but they managed to go undetected until they made it to the stairwell. They got down only two flights of stairs before they ran straight into Professor Borusa, who was still holding the small cat in his dark arms.

He sighed and raised an eyebrow when he saw them.

“I assume this is yours?” he said.

//

The only thing keeping Rallon from banging his head into the wall was Millennia’s smile. No matter how badly he messed up the answers to the flashcards, she kept encouraging him, trying hard to help him get through his disastrous study session.

Vansell gave up after throwing the flashcards around the room again and put on noise-canceling headphones before crawling under his covers and sleeping through the last of their study session. On the one hand, Rallon was a bit annoyed that Vansell threw in the towel, but on the other, he was glad to be rid of him. Not just because he was finally free of the annoying negativity and berating comments, but because that meant he was back to spending some alone time with Millennia.

“Okay, which words do you think you need to go over the most?” she asked. They only had one lamp on, and it illuminated her dark blue hair perfectly. It shone in the light, looking far brighter than normal in the fluorescent glare. Rallon was almost mesmerized by the way it worked like a spotlight on her face, shining on every beautiful, flawless feature. “Uh, Rallon? Are you listening?”

He blinked when she waved a hand in his face. “Yeah, sorry, I was, uh… thinking about the exam? Sorry. What was the question?”

“I asked which words you think you need to work on the most so I would know what to focus on.”

“Oh, right.” He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced down at the flashcards, which were still scattered across the floor but no longer from Vansell’s anger. “Am I allowed to say all of them? Because I think that I really need to work on all of them. Still.”

Millennia laughed, and it was a beautiful sound. “Okay, we’ll go through them all again.”

They reached forwards to gather up the cards at the same time and their hands touched. Rallon blushed, and Millennia let out a smile. He looked up to meet her gorgeous gray eyes, neither of them bothering to pull away their hands as they locked gazes for what was much longer than a single moment. At least, in Rallon’s head. In reality, it was no more than about twenty seconds.

“Sorry.” Millennia pulled away and went back to gathering the cards, but Rallon stayed frozen in his place. He could still feel her soft skin on his palm, and he wanted more than anything to reach out and hold onto her hand again. Of course, he figured she probably didn’t feel the same way and he didn’t want to be a creep, so he didn’t try to touch her again and instead helped her to gather the last of the flashcards.

He handed them over to Millennia once they had gotten all of them, and she clapped them together to make a single stack before shuffling them around. He didn’t say anything as he watched her, his gaze shifting between her beautiful face and the mesmerizing, gorgeously manicured hands that moved the flashcards around. Rallon didn’t tear his gaze away until Millennia looked up from the cards and blushed suddenly.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” she asked, letting out a small giggle.

Rallon was so flustered he didn’t know what to say. “I, uh, you know.” He blinked several times, then made a bold decision that was probably fueled on a combination of sleep-deprivation and pre-exam stress. “You’re just so beautiful.”

She stopped shuffling the cards the moment that he spoke and stared at him blankly. Rallon immediately regretted what he said but knew that it was too late to take it back without sounding like a total jerk. He swallowed hard and waited for her to inevitably call him a creep, or tell him off, or just stand up and leave. Several seconds passed before she actually did anything, and it was none of the things he thought would happen.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, her face flushing pink. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

“Well, they should.” His heart pounded against his chest, but he didn’t stop himself. “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.”

Millennia didn’t respond. She stared at him, her beautiful eyes blinking innocently. She looked both pleased and embarrassed, and Rallon suddenly felt really awkward about what he said. He swallowed hard and looked down at his hands before he spoke.

“Anyway, uh, do you want to get back to working on the flashcards? I think I could still use some serious work on some of those words.”

“Uh, yeah.” She nodded and grabbed the stack of cards off the floor. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Rallon made sure to keep his mouth shut for the rest of the night.

//

The last thing that Theta wanted to do that morning was talk to the Headmaster.

If he had his choice of anything, he would have chosen to crawl back into bed and act like everything was still perfectly fine. Like the night before had never happened, and he still had his cuddly, fluffy friend to snuggle with. But it did, and he didn’t. Ginger was gone, and it was all his fault.

Koschei had to drag him out of bed and scolded him until he got dressed. Theta was still reluctant to go even then, but he knew that there was no way to avoid the inevitable, so he forced himself to follow Koschei all the way to the Headmaster’s office. He nearly made a run for it when he saw Professor Borusa standing right beside the Headmaster, but Koschei grabbed onto his shoulder and shoved him forwards into one of the seats across from the Headmaster’s desk.

The man looked angrier than he had in a long time, but for once, Theta didn’t care. He could give them all the punishments in the world, and he wouldn’t even be bothered by it; not unless they let him have Ginger back, which was more unlikely than them getting off without detention.

Although the Headmaster looked like the veins on his head were about to burst from rage, Professor Borusa looked quite smug and grinned as Theta and Koschei sat down. Neither of them smiled back at him, though Koschei did make sure to send a nasty glare his way. Theta kept his own gaze focused down on his hands and did his best to not look too disappointed about what happened. He didn’t want Professor Borusa to get any extra pleasure out of what had happened.

“All right,” said the Headmaster, “who wants to explain why exactly you boys were keeping a wild animal in your dorm room?”

Theta sighed. “It was all my fault, sir,” he replied sadly. It sucked, but he had made a promise and he stuck to it. “I found her on the grounds a few years ago and I wanted to keep her so badly, so I begged Kos. He said no, but I brought her anyway. He didn’t know.”

“Really?” Professor Borusa raised an eyebrow. “Then why was he out looking for her last night? Don’t say he wasn’t, because both of you were.”

“So was Ushas, but you didn’t make her show up,” Koschei snapped.

“That’s because we know that she was only trying to help out her friends,” said the Headmaster. “It’s fairly obvious that a student as bright as her wouldn’t be stupid enough to bring a possibly rabid animal into the building. In fact, we spoke to her already and she assured us that she was only on the lookout to keep the other students safe.”

“I’m assuming that excuse won’t work for us?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Okay.” Koschei took a deep breath and leaned forwards onto the desk in front of him. “In that case, let me tell you what really happened, and you can decide what to do with us from there.”

//

“…and that is why I think that— oh, hey.”

For once, Ushas didn’t shout at Theta and Koschei for being late. She already knew why they were and had in fact given them permission to not be there throughout the meeting. Once they finally arrived, however, she disregarded her initial topic and turned her attention to the two boys who had just returned from the Headmaster’s office.

“So,” she began, “what did he say?”

“We lost the cat,” said Koschei, “and we got detention for six years, exactly as I predicted. It’s nothing horrible though, we just have to do some basic cleaning and stuff. It’s not like that time that those guys had to rebuild the library.”

“Yeah, but to be fair, we did burn it down,” Drax added. He was, as per usual, leaning back with his feet propped up on the desk in front of him. “So, while it was kind of a shitty thing to have to do, the punishment was absolutely justified.”

“Not for me, of course.” Jelpax looked mildly annoyed but didn’t do anything about it. “I had nothing to do with the scheme until you dragged me into it at the last minute.”

“True. I’m a jackass like that.”

“Anyway,” said Koschei, as he sat down in his normal seat, “Theta is really bummed out, but I’m actually a little bit relieved. I mean, sure we got six years of detention, but on the bright side I don’t have to worry about him doing anything stupid like this again since he already did it.”

“Wait!” Theta, who was still standing, gave him one of the most menacing glares he had ever mustered up. “Are you implying that you’ve thought I was going to mess this up from the first day that I found Ginger?”

“No, I’m not implying it. I’m flat out saying it. Yes, I did think that you were absolutely going to muck it up. You always do.”

He sighed and flopped into his chair. “Point taken.”

“So, you guys actually had a cat?” said Magnus. He didn’t sound like he was interested, exactly, but almost impressed by something. “I mean, I’m not doubting that you would do something so stupid, but it’s hard for me to believe that you actually managed to keep a secret for that long. No offense, but Theta’s kind of a blabbermouth. And Koschei, you just have a tendency to do things wrong.”

“I know, I know. You don’t have to rub it in my face.” Koschei sighed. “But actually, I didn’t even mess this up. Theta was the one who left the door open and let the cat get out.”

“Unfortunately,” Theta mumbled, “that is true.”

“Okay, rabid animal stuff aside,” said Vansell, spinning around in his seat to face Rallon and Millennia, “did you manage to get anything done after I went back to sleep?”

Rallon didn’t answer, but Millennia nodded eagerly. “Yeah, actually. It wasn’t going particularly well at first, but we kind of nailed it after a while. I think Rallon is really going to get this.”

“Yeah, that’s a hilarious joke. He’s not going to say two words before he forgets everything you two went over last night.”

No one bothered to respond to his comment, so Magnus decided to take charge and leaned back in his seat to look slightly taller. He took a quick look around the room, then stopped and held his gaze once he found the person that he was looking for.

“So,” he started, his eyes narrowed, “do you want to tell them what happened last night, or should I?”

Mortimus was reluctant to speak. “What are you talking about? All that happened last night was that you and I got some much-needed rest. Oh, and I did some studying, you know, like a responsible student.”

“I think you’re forgetting the part where you threw all of my stuff into the hallway and tried to claim that Epsilon was your roommate all along.”

“To be fair, it was only your clothes. And we wouldn’t have even thrown that out except Epsilon wanted somewhere to put his clothes. He was planning to just keep all of your stuff so that he wouldn’t have to pack as much.”

“Wait, so you were planning to just steal my stuff?” Magnus gaped.

“No.” He shook his head. “We were going to do a trade. Like, you got to keep his stuff, and he got to keep yours. Most of it is the same standard shit anyway, so it wouldn’t be much of a loss on either side. Plus, like I said, neither of you would have to do much packing that way, so it’s honestly a good idea all around. I don’t know why you’re acting like this was such a terrible plan.”

“Because it was a terrible plan. Just because you let me have all of Epsilon’s garbage doesn’t make up for the fact that you guys would have stolen my stuff.”

Mortimus rolled his eyes. “You just don’t understand our thought process. You’re not smart like we are.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” said Ushas, “but did you actually just call both Epsilon and yourself smart? I mean, you have some strengths, but him? Really?”

“Yeah, I guess you might be right. That was probably a kind of stupid thing to say.” He made a face. “Huh. Maybe this whole thing really was a terrible plan.”

“Of course, it was, and of course I’m right. I’m always right.”

Nobody agreed with her, but no one took the time to argue otherwise either.

//

Rallon kept a level head throughout the day. He repeated phrases to himself between classes and studied extra during meals to make sure that he would be able to hold his own during the conversation he was going to have to have. Millennia helped him too, reminding him the words he forgot and doing flashcards with him during his breaks. For all he had been certain that he would fail, and Vansell kept saying that his exam was going to be a disaster, Rallon actually thought he was going to end up doing pretty well.

Millennia had a free period at the same time as his speaking exam, so she went with him. He felt himself getting more and more nervous as they got closer to the classroom, and suddenly began to worry about whether he would be able to remember everything on the spot. Nevertheless, he assured Millennia that he was confident, even though it was obvious that he was the furthest thing from confident you could be.

“You know, it’s all right to be worried,” she said. “It’s only natural.”

He nodded uncomfortably. “Yeah, of course. It’s all going to be okay. I’m going to pass this. Whew. Okay. Here we go.”

As soon as the previous student walked out of the classroom, Rallon had to go in. He shook himself off, gave Millennia one last smile, and headed into the room. His professor smiled when she saw him and gave him a wave.

“Ho-sho foh-roh!”

Rallon blanked. He didn’t have the faintest idea what she said, nor how he was meant to respond. He stared at her, blinked a few times, then turned around and walked right out of the room. Millennia gave him an extremely concerned look when he strode by her, but he didn’t stop to talk to her. Instead, he just shook his head the whole way down the corridor.

He still didn’t believe that he was quite as stupid as Vansell thought he was, but to think that he could possibly pass an advanced exam with only a few hours of study? That was just ridiculous.

Chapter Text

“Okay, I know I’ve already gone over this, but I feel like it all needs to be said again.”

Ever since she had announced the fact that she was going to have a huge party for her ninety-fourth birthday, Ushas had been going on and on about it. Not just about how it was going to be the greatest party of all time, but about all the rules she was working on to make sure that nobody messed up the party. Apparently, there were more things that could go wrong than could go right, and by the time she finished rattling on about all of them, Theta wasn’t even sure that he wanted to go anymore.

Still, he had to see if it was actually better than Koschei’s parties. He’d always wondered what a good party was like.

At the moment, they were sitting in the library, as they weren’t allowed in Borusa’s classroom outside of their arranged hours and their meeting was on an abnormal day at an abnormal time. Their chosen location that evening was nothing short of a miracle, as the “quiet please” signs all around the room were the only thing keeping Theta from crying out in exasperation.

“If you’re going over the rules again you might as well just give up,” said Drax. He sighed extra dramatically to make sure that his point got across. “You clearly don’t know any of us at all if you think that we’re actually going to listen to you. Breaking the rules is exactly what makes parties fun.”

“Guys, for once, let’s just not fuck this up, okay?” Magnus was using his no-nonsense tone, which got across the point he was trying to make very clearly.

“Why not?” Millennia frowned and tilted her head to the side, then gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, my god! You like Ushas!”

He rolled his eyes when Koschei whipped around to look at him. “No, I don’t,” he snapped. “I just know that if you don’t behave yourselves at this party then she’s going to become even more of a bitch than she normally is, and I don’t know if I can take that.”

“You’ve seen me at my best, and you’ve seen me at my worst,” said Ushas. “I trusted you, and now you’re throwing that in my face on my birthday?”

“To be fair, it’s not your birthday yet,” Jelpax retorted.

“Thank you for pointing out the obvious, you class one a-hole.”

“Hey!” Drax sat up quickly and jabbed a finger in her direction. “Don’t you call my best friend a class one a-hole!”

She didn’t bother to give him a look. “I will call him whatever I want to call him. Now, everyone listen so I can go over the rules again. Especially you, Mortimus. I need to make sure that my bouncer understands everything.”

“I understand everything!” he assured her. “I know that you think I’m stupid, but I’m really not. I have to let people in if they have an invitation, and if they don’t have an invitation then I turn them away. It’s really not rocket science, Ushas.”

“And yet I had to repeat that to you six times before you were finally able to say it back to me without mistakes.”

“That’s not fair. You told me like twelve other bullshit rules too before I convinced you that we didn’t need those ones. Like, god. Are you holding a birthday party or a presidential election?”

“Good god, Mortimus,” Ushas sneered, “that’s not even funny. Now stop being annoying for one second so I can finish going over the rules.”

“Please keep being annoying,” said Theta. “I really don’t want to hear the rules again.”

The comment was meant to be a joke, but Mortimus took it quite literally.

//

“Wait, so you’re actually, literally excited for this stupid party?”

Vansell and Rallon were hanging out in their room after classes the next day—Ushas’s birthday—getting ready for the party. Neither of them were dressing up remarkably nice, despite Ushas’s ridiculous dress code. It was only through a reluctant conversation with his roommate that Vansell realized not everyone was dreading the party, and he was almost shocked by the knowledge. Until Rallon came up with his answer, of course.

“Yeah, obviously.” He adjusted his checkered tie and straightened out his shiny black vest in the mirror. “I mean, the party itself is probably going to suck, but there’s a really good chance that I’ll get to dance with Millennia, so that’s a good thing.”

“You think that she’s actually going to dance with you?” Vansell raised an eyebrow.

He nodded. “Yeah, we had a real intimate moment the other day, actually. So long as I can actually muster up the courage to ask for her hand, I’m almost positive she’ll say yes.”

“Oh, is that so? What was your intimate moment?”

“Well, you know.” Rallon turned around to look at him, shuffling around uncomfortably. “We bumped each other’s hands, and then we made eye-contact. Which probably sounds like nothing, but it lingered, so…”

“Ooh, lingering eye-contact? You’re practically married.” Vansell rolled his eyes, his entire persona dripping with sarcasm. “Look, mate, you gotta make an actual move if you’re ever going to have a shot with her.”

“I know, but it’s just so hard. Like, what if she doesn’t like me back? And then our friendship is just messed up forever? I don’t know what I would do without her.”

“Just go for it, Rallon. Seriously. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

//

Only a few doors down, Millennia was also getting ready for the party. She was on her own, as Ushas had already left to make sure that everything was ready in the banquet hall, but she didn’t mind. It gave her extra time to make sure that she looked perfect. She had a feeling that Rallon was going to want to dance with her that evening, and she had to be sure that she looked incredible for the beautiful moment.

Unfortunately, she didn’t manage to finish her outfit before someone knocked on the door and wandered into her room. Epsilon was looking remarkably peppy that afternoon, though it was hard to know why considering he hadn’t even been informed of Ushas’s birthday party. Still, he practically skipped into the room, and smiled brightly when he saw Millennia.

“Hey!” he said. “So, I was working on this project for science class, and I was just wondering if I could possibly borrow a few paper clips? I ran out.”

“Oh, sure.” Millennia standing in front of the bathroom mirror, running a comb through her hair. “I have some in a bin on my desk if you want to just grab them. I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”

“All right, thanks.”

Epsilon walked over to her desk and rummaged around for a second as he tried to find the correct bin, then stopped when he saw a small stack of printed papers. He frowned and lifted the shiny invitations, his eyes reading through them faster than Millennia could realize what was happening.

“Did you find them?” She peeked her head around the door frame, and gasped when she saw that Epsilon was holding the remaining invitations. “Oh, no!”

She dropped her comb and it got stuck in her hair, but she didn’t pay any attention to it. She ran out of the bathroom and hustled over to him, snatching the invitations away from him as quickly as she could. To be quite honest, Millennia thought that it was rather rude to not invite Epsilon, but Ushas had been very clear about the fact that she didn’t want him at the party, and she promised to uphold that request.

“Uh, why do those invitations say that there’s a party tonight?” Epsilon furrowed his brow, as everything started to click into place. “More specifically, why did I not receive one of those invitations?”

“It— you weren’t—” Millennia stumbled over her words, clearing her throat in an attempt to regain her composure. “It must have been an oversight. Sorry about that.”

“Well, if it was an oversight then I suppose you wouldn’t mind if I just took one of those?” He reached out to take one of the sheets of paper, and she spun around to avoid his hand. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“No, it’s not like that. I mean, I want you there, of course. It’s just that you and Ushas have never really gotten along that well and she thought that you might not be the best person to invite to her party.”

“Yeah, right. Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.” He again tried to take one, and she took a step back. “Come on, I promise I won’t bother her!”

Millennia hesitated, then sighed loudly and handed an invitation over to him. “Just don’t let her find out that I gave it to you, okay?”

“Done deal.” Epsilon grinned. “By the way, you’ve got a little something in your hair.”

He reached forwards and pulled the comb out of her hair, then handed it back to her before he finally turned around and left the room. Millennia groaned and flopped down onto her bed, regretting every decision she made. She only looked up again when the door slid back open, Epsilon shuffling in again.

“Forgot my paper clips,” he said awkwardly, as he hustled over to get them.

//

Although she was secretly slightly worried about what might happen to her party, Ushas was not surprised in the least when it got off to a strong start. Koschei had actually managed to choose some fantastic music, and the banquet hall was decked out in the most brilliantly green and blue decorations (her favorite colors, of course). Ushas still couldn’t quite believe Koschei’s enthusiasm to help her, but she guessed it was due in part to his constantly working on the end of term parties (not that they ever turned out very good).

At that point, the only thing that her party was missing were guests.

“Mortimus!” Ushas ran out into the hallway and found that everyone she had invited was just standing in a line in front of him. “What the hell? Were you planning to let my guests in?”

“Yeah, but it’s not time yet. You said to let them in at—” Mortimus, who was decked out in a rather sharp suit, looked down at his watch and tapped it several times. “Oh, shit. My watch stopped.”

“Which would explain why it’s been twenty minutes and there’s no one inside the party. For god’s sake, let them in.”

“Okay, okay. Sorry. Invitations please!”

Ushas smiled and smoothed out the skirt on her casual moss green dress. Technically she had advertised the event as black-tie only, but she knew that nobody was going to show up wearing that (and they didn’t) so she went rather casual. Her hair was almost normal as well, as she had it in a high ponytail like usual.

She walked back into the banquet hall, as the guests started to flood in behind her. Koschei grinned when she entered the room and ran up to meet her.

“Theta is finishing the rest of the balloons like you wanted,” he said. He, like most of the boys, was just wearing black pants and a button-up. “I was going to help him, but I didn’t want to so I decided I would just make him do all the work instead.”

“Why are you like this?” Ushas sighed and peered around the room to find Theta, who was sitting in one of the corners looking completely out of breath. She almost called to him but laughed instead. “All right, if that’s your idea of a birthday present then you win. He needed a punishment like that.”

“For what?”

“For everything.”

Koschei snorted. “By that logic, I really deserve a punishment too, don’t I?”

“Of course, you do.” Ushas slapped him across the shoulder jokingly. “Anyway, I’ve got to go speak with my guests. I’ll see you around. Oh, and don’t let Theta suffocate himself. It’ll really put a damper on my birthday if someone dies.”

He smiled as she walked away. Maybe the evening wouldn’t be so awful after all.

//

Mortimus knew that Ushas was being over dramatic when she said that being a bouncer was difficult, but he didn’t anticipate the job to be so ridiculously easy. All he had to do was take people’s invitations and send them away if they didn’t have any. It was an exceptionally simple screening process, especially when combined with his acute sense of knowing who was and was not cool.

It wasn’t until Epsilon walked up to him when Mortimus had his first conflict.

“Hey, sorry.” Mortimus put a hand in front of the door to stop him from entering. “You’re not invited. You’re on the list of people I can’t allow in.”

“Really? Could I see the list?” Epsilon peered around, but there was no list to be seen.

“Uh, no. I lost it, unfortunately. I definitely remember that you were on it, though, so you can’t come in. Sorry, not sorry. Go away, please.”

He shook his head and held out a shiny gold invitation. “I have an invitation, so what are you going to say to that, hm?”

“Wait, you have an invitation?” Mortimus snatched it away from him and held it up in front of his nose as if that would somehow confirm the validity of it. After a moment, he lowered the paper and turned his narrowed gaze back to Epsilon. “Where did you get an invitation?”

“Ushas gave it to me,” he answered casually. “I guess she had a change of heart.”

They stared at each other for several seconds before Mortimus finally groaned and moved his arm. “All right then, I guess you’re in. Go ahead, mate.”

Epsilon grinned when he walked into the party.

//

Had he walked out just one minute earlier, Jelpax—one of Ushas’s two security men for the day, along with Magnus—would have caught Epsilon before he managed to get into the party. However, he didn’t go back out into the hallway until just too late, at which point Mortimus had already let him in and the worst had already happened. Oblivious to that, he stuck to his own needs and came to a halt in front of Mortimus.

“Hey, has Drax come through here yet?” he asked. Unlike most others, Jelpax was dressed in all black as per Ushas’s demands. “I haven’t seen him inside.”

“Uh, no.” Mortimus took a few more invitations, then leaned back against the wall when the last of the line disappeared into the banquet hall. “I thought he said he was planning to come, though. Maybe he lost his invitation?”

“He doesn’t even need an invitation. I mean, yeah, he had one, but I’m pretty sure you know to let Deca members in. We’re all on the pass list.”

He nodded uncomfortably. “Oh, yeah right. I definitely didn’t lose that list. And I didn’t lose the other one either.”

“For the love of god, Mortimus,” said Jelpax, an urgent expression on his face, “tell me you did not lose those lists.”

“That is what I just said.” Despite his words, his tone was not convincing in the least. “I definitely didn’t lose anything! I have the lists on my phone, since it’s easier than carrying around a clipboard. You want proof? I sent Dourgonn away. And Lungin too. I know not to let people in if they don’t have invitations.”

“Good.” Luckily, he didn’t notice when Mortimus let out a soft sigh of relief. “Well, let me know if Drax comes through here, yeah?”

“Will do!”

Mortimus banged his head against the table as soon as Jelpax was out of sight.

//

Millennia ran up and gave Ushas a hug as soon as she spotted her, even though she knew her best friend wasn’t a fan of them. For once, Ushas didn’t pull away, but laughed and spun around to look at her. The rock music was blaring too loud, and Millennia’s pale pink dress looked slightly out of place with the rest of the color scheme, but none of it mattered. The party was a success. People were genuinely enjoying themselves, and Ushas was too.

“Happy birthday!” Millennia cheered. “Are you having a good time?”

She nodded. “Of course, I’m having a good time. I planned the party and made the guest list. This is going wonderfully so far.”

“Yeah, right.” She swallowed hard, remembering the awkward hiccup she had caused in the invited guests, but didn’t say anything. “Have you seen Rallon yet?”

“That depends.” Ushas glanced over her shoulder to make sure that none of their friends were eavesdropping, then leaned in closer to her. “Are you finally going to admit that you have a crush on him?”

“What? I do not! I’m just saying that if he happens to be here, I wouldn’t mind maybe dancing with him once. Or twice. Or for an hour.”

She giggled and Ushas rolled her eyes jokingly. “Okay, then go find him. I think he said he was going to— what the hell?!”

The smile fell clean off her face when she turned to look at the refreshments table. Instead of seeing Rallon, who she thought was over there, she saw none other than Epsilon taking her snacks and sipping at a cup of her fruit punch as if it belonged to him. She narrowed her eyes and charged over to him, ignoring Millennia as she left her standing alone in the middle of the party.

“What are you doing in here?” she snapped, slamming a hand down onto the refreshments table.

Epsilon gasped and dropped a handful of crackers onto the floor. “Nothing! I just wanted to check out the party. I won’t mess anything up, I swear.”

“You’ve already made a mess of your crackers, and I’m sure that’s just the beginning. Don’t lie to me, you idiot.”

“I’m not lying! I only even dropped my crackers because you came over here and scared the hell out of me with your demon eyes. Please don’t look at me like that.”

She inhaled sharply. “You say one more thing about me and I swear to god I’m going to kick your ass.”

“Oh, god. Please don’t kick my ass.” Epsilon placed his plate down onto the refreshments table and raised his hands up in defense, his cup still in one of them. “I won’t ruin your party, promise. Just please let me hang out here? All my friends were invited! Plus, Ummins wasn’t so I can brag about that later.”

“Brag about what? Ummins isn’t even real!”

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t mean to be rude to you on your birthday, but I’m really getting tired of hearing you say that. Just because you’re not popular enough to be friends with him doesn’t mean that you have to be such a—”

Epsilon lurched when someone bumped into his back, spilling his cup and its contents all over Ushas. She gasped as her green dress turned a disgusting shade of brown, the cold liquid pouring down her tanned skin. Her entire face flushed red, and it was impossible to tell how much of it was from rage and how much was from embarrassment.

“This is why I didn’t invite you!” she shouted. Several people turned to look at them, but she ignored it. “Because you always do stuff like this! It doesn’t even have to be intentional, it’s just like you’re a magnet for shit events! Everything seems fine, and then suddenly you show up and everything goes to hell. Look at my birthday now, Epsilon. Are you happy?”

She punched him in the jaw, then turned and stormed out of the banquet room.

The first person to run up to Epsilon after that was Magnus, who grabbed onto him and escorted him out of the room. Millennia went to chase after Ushas but was stopped at the door by Koschei who looked alarmed.

“What happened?” he asked. “Did Magnus just drag Epsilon out of here, or did I see that wrong?”

“I’m sorry, I’ll explain later.” Millennia pushed him aside and hurried down the hall, trying to catch her roommate before she was gone.

Alone and confused, Koschei turned back around to look for the only person he knew wouldn’t walk away from him. Theta was still sitting in the corner blowing up balloons, but he stopped when Koschei approached him.

“Jeez, is she okay?” asked Theta, a remarkably unconcerned expression on his face.

He shrugged. “Probably. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but you know Ushas. She’s too arrogant to just abandon the party. She’ll probably come right back in a few minutes. I think it’s Epsilon you should be more concerned about, honestly. He looked rather pathetic being dragged out of here like a monkey.”

“I don’t know. I thought he looked rather natural.”

//

Although it looked bad at first, Koschei turned out to be right. Magnus was the first one to spot Ushas on her way back into the banquet hall. He was standing guard for Epsilon, of course, and trusted Jelpax to keep a watch on all the idiots enjoying the party on the inside.

“Thank you for tackling Epsilon,” said Ushas diplomatically, stopping on her way into the room. Her new dress was around knee-length, and a pure black color. “That was quite a bold move.”

Magnus shrugged modestly. “Yeah, it was no big deal. I’d tackle him any day.”

“Still, though. Thanks for being there. I couldn’t have chosen a better security guard.”

“That is true.”

Ushas gave him a smile before she went back into the banquet hall, Millennia running down the hallway to catch up with her before she got lost in the crowd. Meanwhile, Magnus stayed in his spot, not trusting Epsilon to stay away for long. He tried to stand in the doorway quietly, avoiding the bustle of the party, but curiosity got the better of him and for once in his life he initiated a conversation with Mortimus.

“Hey, have you seen Vansell yet?” he asked, nudging his roommate in the shoulder.

Mortimus shook his head, then pushed his floppy dark hair back behind his ears. “No,” he answered. “Why? This doesn’t really seem like his scene anyway, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, but he told Ushas that he would work security with me and Jelpax but he never showed up this afternoon. I just thought it was kind of weird that he bailed on us without warning. Doesn’t seem like him.”

“Drax hasn’t shown up either. Do you think they’re up to something?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Drax? Yes. Vansell? I doubt it.”

“Doubt what? And why are you comparing me and Vansell?” Drax walked up right then, a mildly confused expression on his freckled face. He was wearing a light blue shirt, black pants, and a tie around his neck which was, ironically, not tied. To top off his look, he was wearing a casual jacket which didn’t match with the rest of his outfit at all, the sleeves pulled down over his hands.

“Oh, we were just wondering where you two were at,” said Mortimus. “I thought that maybe you two were getting up to some schemes or something while everyone was occupied.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to go scheming with Vansell anytime soon, but that’s an interesting thought. Did I miss anything?”

“Uh, Epsilon crashed the party and dumped fruit punch all over Ushas,” Magnus answered. He glanced up and down the corridor once, suddenly reminded of his reason for standing out there. “Other than that? No. Not really. It’s better than Koschei’s parties but there’s still nothing of note. I’m sure you’ll shake it up a bit, though, yeah?”

He shook his head and ran a hand through his bangs. “No, I don’t think so. I really don’t feel like it today. I mean, I fuck up everything else in her life so I might as well let her have her birthday, right?”

“No, not right. Why are you acting weird?”

“I’m not acting weird. I just decided not to be a total asshole for once. You might want to try it sometime.”

They stared at each other irritably for several seconds before Mortimus put a hand in between their faces to break up the contest. Magnus glared at him, while Drax took a step back and lowered his gaze.

“Sorry,” said Mortimus, shrugging innocently. “That was really uncomfortable, and I wanted the moment to end, so…”

Magnus reached up to clock him, but Rallon walked in between them at just the wrong moment and ended up getting whacked in the jaw. He stumbled backwards and let out a cry of anguish, then clutched his face where he had been hit. Magnus rolled his eyes and failed to apologize, while Mortimus ran over to him, putting one arm on his shoulder and the other one his hand.

“Oh, god. I’m so sorry!” he said. “That was meant for me. Come on, let’s go to the refreshments table and I’ll get you some ice.”

//

“Oh, my god.” Rallon groaned and ran a hand along his jawline, where a miserable bruise was starting to form. He turned away from the mirror to look at Mortimus, who handed his ice pack (or rather, ice wrapped in a napkin) back to him. Rallon lifted it back up to his jaw and sighed. “Millennia is never going to want to dance with me now.”

“What, just because you’ve got an ugly bruise on your jaw?” Mortimus shook his head. “No, you look like a bad-ass warrior now. I’d dance with you.”

“You would literally dance with anyone.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rallon. I might be slutty, but I do have some standards. Anyway, chin up. You got this, mate. Just go ask her to dance. If there’s one thing I know about Millennia it’s that she cares about people, not looks. She won’t judge you just because you’ve got a bruise on you. If anything, she’ll like you more because she’ll want to make sure that you’re okay.”

Rallon nodded. It was true, but he still couldn’t stomach the idea of Millennia seeing him in such a state. “I guess you’re right.”

“Yeah, of course I’m right. I’m always right. That’s one of the benefits of being a psychology major. Now seriously, go before someone else asks her to dance.”

“All right, I’m going.” He took a deep breath, shook himself off, and charged out of the restroom.

//

If Drax wasn’t his best friend, and he was searching for him based solely on his typical mannerisms, Jelpax never would have spotted him at the party.

He had almost expected Drax to make some grand gesture when he arrived, by prank or otherwise. However, he failed to announce his presence in any way, and didn’t even bother to find Jelpax when he got there. In fact, he wasn’t even interacting with anyone, so he had no excuse to be as quiet as he was.

Jelpax abandoned his post and headed over to him, pushing through the crowds of people to make it over to his best friend. For once, Drax’s outfit was not entirely cohesive, as the jacket he wore completely went against the classy getup he had put together beneath it. He waved lamely when he noticed Jelpax coming up and stepped away from the wall he had been leaning back against in the corner.

“Hey,” said Jelpax, “everything all right?”

Drax didn’t pull away when Jelpax reached out to tie the fabric that was hanging around his neck. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He shrugged and crossed his arms, then winced and let them fall limp again. “I didn’t mean to be late today, I just got distracted with some stuff.”

“And you forgot to take off your jacket?” He pulled Drax’s tie tight and took a step back. “No offense meant by that, of course. It’s just that you normally have a much better sense of style.”

“Yeah, last minute addition. I didn’t want to go for short sleeves. It’s just too cold in here right now.”

“Is it? Feels rather hot in here to me, with all these people dancing around and stinking up the place. And aren’t you always talking about how you’re resistant to the cold?”

“That was a joke every time,” he deadpanned, “and as you can see, I’m hiding out from all the people, so it’s not nearly as warm.”

“Which brings me to my next question: why are you hiding out from everyone, Mr. Extrovert? Shouldn’t you be trying to sabotage Ushas’s birthday by now?”

Drax rolled his eyes. “You act like you’re my best friend, but you really have a low opinion of me, don’t you?”

“No, I have an honest opinion of you.” He sighed and took a step closer to him. “What happened? Why are you acting like such a dick?”

“Nothing happened. Please leave me alone. I’m not in the mood for one of your interrogations right now.”

“Which is exactly why I’m interrogating you,” said Jelpax. “You know that I never do this unless I know that you aren’t in the mood. That’s literally the reason I do it.”

“I know, and that’s literally the reason I hate you sometimes.” Drax tugged at the sleeve of his jacket, as if something was itching him, then pulled it back down over his hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean that. It’s just been a really long day and I’m fucking exhausted.”

“So just go back to the dormitory. You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to.”

He sighed. “I could, but I already spend most of my time being a nuisance and I don’t want to just abandon Ushas on her birthday. I know that we fight a lot, but we are still kind of friends and I know that she would be pissed if I left without even saying— oh, hey! Happy birthday!”

Drax cut himself off when Ushas walked over, her fresh black dress lying flat against her knees. She smiled when she saw him, and he lamely returned the gesture before she pulled him into a hug.

There were two things about the situation that confused Jelpax, and he didn’t know which one was more concerning. The fact that Ushas had actually hugged someone, or the fact that Drax had winced when she did it; more specifically, when she touched his forearm. He pulled away as soon as she let him, and recrossed his arms.

“So, what are you doing?” she asked. “More specifically, why are you distracting my security instead of enjoying the party?”

He gave her a look. “Talking to my best friend is ‘distracting your security’ now? What kind of security breach do you think you’re going to have?”

“Epsilon already broke in here and destroyed my dress. Yes, before you got here. That’s not even an hour into the party and something already went horribly wrong. Believe me, security is needed.”

“Fair enough.” Drax nodded and pushed a hand through his bangs. “Anyway, we should probably all get back to what we were doing. Ushas, go greet some more guests like you’re an actually pleasant person; Jelpax, do security stuff, and I’ll sulk over here in the corner without any of you lot to bother me.”

“Yeah, because I’m going to let you do that,” said Jelpax sarcastically.

Ushas didn’t even blink. “I am. Have fun moping around, idiots.”

She clapped them both on the shoulder before she turned around to continue her party. Jelpax didn’t hesitate before he turned back to look at Drax, who appeared to be impatient and mildly pissed off. He sighed when Jelpax opened his mouth, then held up a finger to shush him. Drax reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, then glanced at the screen before he swallowed hard and placed it back into his pocket.

“Okay, I hate to admit it,” he started, “but I think you’re right. I’m just going to go.”

Drax turned around to leave, and Jelpax ran to stop him. He grabbed onto his forearm gently. “Hey, wait—”

“Please don’t touch me.” He pulled away and took a step away from his friend, guilt crossing over his face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to— I just— I think I’m going to be sick.”

He didn’t give Jelpax another chance to speak before he turned around and disappeared into the crowd of partygoers.

//

“Oh, my god. You’re actually horrible at this.”

Theta ignored Koschei’s comment and continued on with his horrendous dancing. He was doing some thing where he had his hands over his head, shaking them around like an idiot. Koschei wasn’t dancing at all but kept his eyes on his ridiculous roommate. Although Theta’s dancing—if it could be called that—was ridiculously embarrassing, it was also mesmerizingly bad and Koschei couldn’t force himself to look away.

“That’s rude,” said Theta. He briefly stopped dancing and placed his hands on his hips grumpily. “I am not a horrible dancer.”

“No, you’re right. You’re actually horrendous.”

He sighed and gave Koschei a look. “I can’t believe that you would say something so mean to me. I’ve worked so hard to come up with my own dance moves.”

“And yet you’re still horrendous,” Koschei added.

Theta shrugged and resumed his terrible dancing just in time for Ushas to walk over. She gasped when she saw him, then slapped him across the arm, an appalled expression on her face.

“For fuck’s sake, Theta,” she snapped. “You’re embarrassing me on my birthday! Now stop dancing right this instant or I’m going to kick you out of my party, I swear to god.”

He sighed and stopped dancing again, a dejected expression on his face. “This is why I didn’t bother getting you a present,” he declared. “I knew that you’d do something mean like this and I would regret giving it to you later, and that’s exactly what happened.”

“Wait, you didn’t even get me a present? Why the hell did I invite you to my party?”

“Because we’re friends?” Theta rolled his eyes and looked over at Koschei for reassurance. He didn’t supply any. “I know that we have our differences sometimes, but we’re still friends. Even if I didn’t get you a birthday present, which I now realize was a really crappy thing to do, so sorry. That is kind of my fault.”

“Apology not accepted.”

Ushas gave him an angry glance before she whipped around and sashayed back out into the crowd. Theta watched her go, one eyebrow raised, then turned to look at Koschei.

“I shouldn’t feel bad about that, right?”

“About her bitchiness?” Koschei shook his head. “About the present? Yeah. I specifically told you to get her something, you idiot.”

Theta sighed. “I forgot,” he mumbled lamely.

And, instead of trying to figure out how he forgot such a simple thing, Koschei just shook his head and walked off to grab a snack.

//

Rallon spent the better part of an hour searching the crowd for Millennia. For the first time in his life he found himself wishing that she wasn’t so social, because she seemed to be floating all around the room. As soon as someone told him where she was, she was already gone, and he found himself chasing her again. He felt like he was in one of those cartoons where the guys ran through doors and doors and never got anywhere, but worse.

He tried asking people where she was multiple times, hoping that at some point he would end up catching her before she floated to her next social group, but it didn’t work. She was gone from the punch before he made it, gone from the dance floor before he could offer his hand, and vanished from the crowd before he could spot her. Eventually, Rallon felt like he had enough, and he sat down in one of the chairs against the wall near the snack table dejectedly.

All he had wanted from the party was for Millennia to dance with him. Just once. He wasn’t even looking for some super special, ultra-romantic slow dance (although that would be nice), he just wanted to spend time with her. To have fun in a situation that was stereotypically romantic so she might maybe possibly get the idea that he was interested in her. Not that he was too chicken to ask her out, of course, just that he needed to be sure that he wasn’t putting their friendship on the line when he did eventually.

To Rallon’s surprise, someone sat down in the chair beside him after a few minutes. It wasn’t Millennia, unfortunately, but Ushas. Although she had been distraught the last time he saw her, she looked a bit cheered up now. He almost couldn’t believe that she was actually enjoying a social event so much, considering she usually talked about hating them, but there she was, an inexplicable smile on her face. Until she turned to look at him with a half-serious, half-concerned expression.

“Why do you look so disappointed?” she asked. “This is a party.”

Rallon shrugged. “I guess I was hoping to dance with Millennia tonight?” he said awkwardly. “I don’t know why. It’s not like she even wants to dance with me, but now I’ll never get the chance to know for sure because I can’t track her down. She’s such a social butterfly that she just keeps bouncing around and I can’t find her anywhere. Oh, and please don’t tell her that I said that.”

“Don’t tell her that you said that?” Ushas rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you think that she wouldn’t want to dance with you. You’re all she ever talks about.”

“What?” Although it was one of the only things he had ever wanted to hear, Rallon couldn’t bring himself to believe her immediately. It was almost too perfect. “For real? You’re not just messing with me right now?”

She snorted. “No, of course not. Look, Rallon, all I want is for you two to get together so that you can just stop talking to me about each other.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever talked to you about her in this context.”

“I said what I said. Now stop pretending you can’t find her and put on your fucking big boy pants.” Ushas stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. Many people stopped talking, making it quite audible when she shouted. “Hey, Millennia!”

Ushas smiled and waved at her friend when she became visible in the crowd, then patted Rallon’s knee and nodded for him to go. He didn’t.

Although he wanted to ask Millennia to dance more than anything else in the world, he was suddenly ridiculously aware of how many people were staring at him, and it became impossible for him to move. Instead, he stared at Millennia like an absolute idiot, his dark brown eyes not even blinking as his nerves took over from his brain. Ushas had walked away after patting his knee, which left him entirely alone in the middle of the split crowd, still several feet away from Millennia.

“Sorry, is something supposed to be happening right now?” Millennia didn’t look any more comfortable than he did, turning her head around to glance at the many onlookers.

Rallon swallowed hard and forced himself to his feet. No matter how awkward he felt, he wasn’t going to leave her in that terrible situation. He walked over to her as quickly as his feet would allow him to move—which was not as quickly as he would have liked—and held out a shaking hand.

“Do you, uh, do you want to dance?” he asked, tripping over his words far more than he would have liked.

Millennia glanced around, as if she was confused, then turned back to him and nodded as she took his hand. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

For a split second, Rallon almost expected everyone to clap. However, they were not living in a teen movie, so everyone ignored them and went back to what they were doing before Ushas stole their attention. Rallon was actually happier about that than he would have been with the cheering, as he was not the most comfortable with people staring at him. He smiled at Millennia as he led her onto the dance floor, and she smiled back, a light pink blush on her cheeks.

“Sorry about Ushas,” said Rallon. “She didn’t like me sitting around instead of having fun.”

She shrugged and slid her hands into position to dance. “I think it turned out okay.”

He almost couldn’t believe that he was slow dancing with Millennia, but he was, and it was everything he had ever wanted.

//

It took Jelpax longer than he would have liked to find Drax again, and when he did, he was almost surprised that he knew immediately what to do.

Drax was sitting on the steps outside the nearest entrance to the building. He had taken off his tie, and was twisting it around in his fingers, his gaze downcast. Jelpax didn’t approach him right away but waited and watched him for a moment to try to figure out what he was feeling. It didn’t take him long to do so, so when he felt comfortable and ready, he sat down beside Drax.

Up close, it was easy to see how much he was affected by whatever happened. Drax’s eyes were red and puffy, his face pale and shining from tears, and his hair an utter mess as if he had run his hands through it many times over. He had taken off his jacket as well, giving the spotlight to his light blue button-up. His sleeves went down to his wrists, but were sliding up on his left arm, revealing another piece of white fabric beneath.

Neither of them spoke at first. Drax didn’t even look over at his friend but kept staring down at his tie whilst ignoring his very presence. Meanwhile, Jelpax looked straight ahead, out into the distant orange fields beyond the Academy walls. He sighed, and kept his gaze focused in front of him when he spoke.

“You know,” he started, “I let you get away with a shit ton of stuff. You have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to stop you, or talk to you, or ask you questions. But I don’t, because I know that you don’t like that, so I give you space unless you want to talk to me first and I act like I don’t care. But I do care. You don’t understand how much I care about you, Drax. You act like it’s not big deal, but you’re my best friend. I worry about you so much and I hate that I can’t just ask you how I can help.”

Drax sniffed and gripped onto his tie tighter, but he didn’t say anything.

“I know that it’s not going to change anything, because nothing I’ve tried has ever changed anything, but I just wanted you to know that you can talk to me. I know that I’m partially responsible for this too, because I’m always talking about how I hate socializing and whatever, but it’s different with you. You’re not just some random person, Drax. We’ve been best friends since we were eight. And I don’t want to rag on how you choose to live, I don’t, but I just… I wish that you wouldn’t hide everything that makes you upset. All I want is to make you feel better.”

He still didn’t respond. Drax twisted the tie around his hands, before dropping it suddenly. He sniffed and ran both hands through his hair, then propped his arm up on his leg and rested his head on his hand. When he turned to look at Jelpax, his dark green eyes were again brimming with tears.

“I’m not trying to shut you out,” he mumbled. His voice was thick with emotion, and more than anything Jelpax wanted to comfort him. “I didn’t mean to make it seem like I don’t want to talk to you or answer your questions. I’m just— there’s some things that I’m really bad at dealing with, and I can’t… it’s not because of you. It’s not. I just can’t talk about it and I’m— I’m so sorry I made you worry.”

Drax let out a sob, and Jelpax instinctively wrapped an arm around him. Instead of ignoring him or pulling away, Drax leaned in and rested his head on Jelpax’s shoulder, his fluffy hair tickling his chin and his tears soaking into his suit jacket.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Jelpax rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. “I’m not mad at you. I shouldn’t have even said anything.”

“No, that’s even worse,” he babbled. “I can’t believe this. I was so fucking cold that you don’t even feel like you can talk to me anymore. What kind of a fucking friend am I?”

With every sob, sniff, and tear, Jelpax felt worse. Especially since he still didn’t know what had brought this on, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask about it anymore. He had already gotten too far into it, much further than he normally did, and it was awful. He could hardly believe what he had done, even if it wasn’t all his fault.

“And despite my best intentions, I’m ruining Ushas’s birthday now,” he went on, before Jelpax had a chance to speak. “Not just for her, ‘cause I know she probably didn’t want me there anyway, but you too. You were supposed to be having fun and you have to deal with my shit. I’m so sorry I made a mess of everything.”

“Okay, one, you didn’t make a mess of anything. It’s not your fault that whatever happened to you happened on Ushas’s birthday. Two, she absolutely wanted you at the party because she gave you a hug and she never hugs anyone. You know that. Three, I’m not mad at you at all. Honestly, I didn’t want to be Ushas’s bodyguard anyway. I only agreed because the party was really special to her and I didn’t want to be a dick about it. You’ve basically just saved me for a bit.”

“I’m pretty sure you would rather be in there pretending to be a bodyguard than out here with a stupid, pathetic mess like me.”

Jelpax rested his head on top of Drax’s. “You’re not stupid, and you’re definitely not a pathetic mess.”

“I’m literally about to fail seven classes,” he deadpanned.

“That still doesn’t make you stupid or pathetic.” He sighed softly. “I can help you, Drax. I’m not trying to flaunt my grades or something when I offer to tutor you. I genuinely want to help. I want to see you succeed.”

“I’m not going to succeed.” Drax turned his gaze downward and clenched his hands into tight fists. “I’m fucking awful. I ruin everything, and it would be a waste of your time to try and help me. You know it doesn’t work. It’s never worked. I’m just a fucking waste of space at this point.”

“Hey.” He slid back a bit so he could make eye-contact but didn’t move his arm. “You matter to me.”

The last thing he expected in response to his comment was for Drax to break down again, but that was exactly what happened. Jelpax wrapped another arm around him and held on a little tighter.

//

Magnus only hated being a security guard until he walked into the party. Upon looking around at the gross, loud, bustling idiots in the banquet hall, he realized that Ushas had come up with an absolutely brilliant idea when she put him on guard duty. There was nothing inside for him, and in the time it took him to make sure everything was in order—because Jelpax, the inside guy, ran off somewhere—he felt ready to throw up from all the happiness.

He did his sweep of the room in about two minutes, then went back out into the hallway to make sure that Mortimus was sticking to his job (not letting anyone else in without Magnus’s permission). He had done the sweep so quickly that he doubted Mortimus could get himself into trouble already, but apparently, he was wrong.

“Oh, what the hell?”

Instead of sitting at his table, Mortimus was over by the wall; one hand leaning against it and the other hanging limply by his side while he snogged some bloke he had pinned against the bricks. He groaned and pulled away when he heard Magnus speak.

“You said I couldn’t talk to any girls,” he said lamely.

“Goddammit, Mort.” Magnus crossed his arms and walked closer to them. “I didn’t think you would actually fuck a guy.”

“I’m not fucking him; I’m just snogging him.” Mortimus rolled his eyes and waved a hand at him. “Now go away. I’m busy.”

Before he could lean back in on the guy, Magnus grabbed onto his collar and yanked him back. Mortimus let out a yelp and rubbed the back of his neck, as he stumbled to catch his balance. Magnus, not fully satisfied that he had gotten rid of the distraction, glared at the bloke he was snogging and gestured for him to leave.

“What the fuck, Magnus?” he snapped, whipping around to slap his roommate across the shoulder as soon as the other student was gone. “Why did you do that?”

“Because you’re supposed to be working right now, dumbass.” His tone was flat and slightly aggressive. “And have you learned nothing over the years? Touch me again and you won’t see tomorrow.”

“Yeah? What’s the point of tomorrow if you’re so busy killing all the fun?” Magnus didn’t respond, so he sighed and tried to change the subject as he dragged his hands through his suddenly messy hair. “So, how goes it?”

“Well, it was all right until you let Epsilon in and almost fucked up the whole day,” he answered casually.

“Oh, get over it.” Mortimus rolled his eyes. “That was like two hours ago. Everything turned out all right anyway, so I don’t even see what the big deal is, to be honest.”

He blinked. “You don’t see what the big deal is? You almost ruined the entire day, you idiot. I’m not even exaggerating. Epsilon was in the room for five minutes and he managed to both destroy Ushas’s dress and severely piss her off.”

“Yeah, but she’s fine now. Stop being so angry about it. It’s not like she’s your girlfriend.” Magnus didn’t answer but turned his gaze straight ahead. Mortimus gasped and pointed a finger in his direction as he clapped a hand over his mouth. “Oh, my god. You like Ushas.”

“What? No, I don’t.” He snapped his head to look at his roommate, who had the most obnoxious smug grin on his face. “Mortimus, stop looking at me like that. I don’t like Ushas.”

“When have I ever been wrong before?”

Magnus ignored him and walked back over to his post in front of the banquet hall. Mortimus went back to his own place as well—the crappy table and folding chair Ushas set up for him—and used the silence as an opportunity to check his phone. He had many messages from girls who wanted to dance with him, but he just slid them all away. A dance wasn’t worth getting in trouble with Magnus again. They’d have to offer more than that (like poor, sexy Thebrir had before Magnus scared him off).

After he was entirely certain that Magnus was avoiding his question, and he swiped away half-a-dozen girls, Mortimus dropped his phone and leaned back in his seat. He propped his feet up on the table in front of him and raised an eyebrow towards his roommate.

“So, you like her, then?” he asked casually.

The look Magnus shot him was one that could only be described as murderous. “No, I don’t,” he snapped. “Stop asking.”

“Hey, I’m not judging you, I just like getting up in people’s business. It’s really fun.”

“Is it?” He glanced over his shoulder, to make sure that no one was coming out into the hallway, then turned back to Mortimus. “The nurse called me seven times last year. We’re perfectly fine, of course, so I just ignored it. Then she sought me out because she just had to ask me a question. You know what that question was?”

Mortimus was visibly confused when he shook his head.

“She wanted to know what I thought of your mental health. And she didn’t tell me why, nor did she ever follow-up after I said you were fine albeit stupid, so I just kind of let it go. But now I’m thinking, if it’s so fun to get up in other people’s business, it might be fun to ask you about what the hell happened. So, you want to tell me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He delivered the line in such a genuine manner that Magnus couldn’t tell whether he was telling the truth, but he decided to believe that he was lying. It was far more likely than him somehow not knowing about the situation anyway.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, his words dripping with venom. “Now, you better stop asking me questions, or I’m going to start asking you questions too. Understand?”

Mortimus nodded, and suddenly the expression on his face was reflective of what he really thought about the threat. He didn’t say anything right away, so Magnus smirked to himself and turned his attention straight ahead again, resuming his position as strict bodyguard. It wasn’t a minute later when Mortimus suddenly spoke again, and he mentally groaned.

“Magnus?” he asked, his voice unnaturally quiet.

He turned to look at his roommate. “What?”

“You didn’t say anything to anyone, did you?” Mortimus bit his bottom lip hard, as if he was nervous.

Magnus shook his head. “No. I hate you, Mort, but I don’t hate you that much.”

“Okay.”

He didn’t say anything else after that, and finally Magnus was able to return to his boring, silent, nothing-left-to-do job.

//

“Hey, Ushas!”

She audibly groaned when she heard Theta calling after her. The last thing she wanted was to turn around and respond to him, but she knew that he didn’t quit easily, and getting it over quickly was the only way to make him go away. Ushas raised an eyebrow when she turned around, only to be met by the stupidest grin she had ever seen on Theta’s face.

“What do you want, Thete?” she asked.

“I got you a present!” He held out a small rectangle, but she didn’t take it. He nudged it towards her a few more times. “Come on, Ushas, please? I’m really sorry I didn’t give it to you sooner. I just, uh, forgot it in my room.”

“Do you think I’m stupid?” Despite what she said, she took the present from him. “You literally told me that you didn’t get me a present. I know that this is some last-minute thing you came up with.”

“Fine, okay, but you’ll like it. I promise!”

Ushas opened the present very slowly. Even though the last thing she expected was to be pranked on her birthday, she didn’t trust Theta one bit. Especially since he brought her the present so late, and there had already been one unexpected disaster at her party that day.

She tore the paper with caution and leaned back before she finally pulled out the small object. She frowned and narrowed her eyes when she realized that it was just a candy bar—chocolate with some kind of nuts. It was her favorite, but still, a suspicious gift.

“Did you literally just walk into the hallway and buy this from the vending machine?”

Theta shook his head aggressively. “No. I broke into the Scendeles’ building, ‘cause we don’t have vending machines here. Of course, they didn’t have anything good and I was worried about it being poisoned, so I came back here empty-handed. Then I saw Mortimus with a bunch of candy outside and I made him give me one in exchange for money.”

“While I don’t approve of you breaking into places or funding Mortimus’s hoarding,” Ushas began, “I’m actually rather pleased with this. Thank you, Theta.”

He smiled. “You’re welcome.”

//

After the party was finished, the ten members of the Deca were the only students who remained in the banquet hall. They were all standing around the back of the room, where Ushas was in front of her table filled with presents. Koschei and Theta were standing nearest to her, ready to hand over presents, while Magnus stood off to the side, observing everyone else as he leaned back against the wall.

Millennia and Rallon weren’t really paying attention to the others but joking around at the snack table. Jelpax was sitting on a chair just a few feet back, Drax’s arms draped over his shoulders. Mortimus was trying to be more involved with the gifts, but as Ushas was still quite angry with him, Vansell (who only showed up once everyone else was long gone) had been tasked with keeping him away, and thus they were both several feet back from the group.

“Okay, open this big one next.”

Theta tried to hand over a large box, but Koschei pushed him aside. “No,” he said, “open this one. The smaller ones are always better.”

“Pfft.” Theta rolled his eyes. “We’ll see about that.”

Ushas said nothing to either of them but took the smaller box from Koschei. She ripped it open quickly, then frowned when she saw what was inside. She held it up for her friends to see.

“It’s a key chain, and I’m pretty sure it’s homemade. What a shitty present.”

“One, that’s rude,” said Theta, “and two, open this one!”

He shoved the present into Ushas’s chest, so she wouldn’t have a chance to reject it again. Meanwhile, Koschei surfed the pile of gifts for the best one, hoping that whatever he found would one-up Theta. Luckily for him, Ushas was not pleased with the larger present either, so he had an opening for something better.

Just far enough away to not be able to see the shitty key chain and ugly hat, Mortimus slapped at Vansell’s hand in an attempt to get away.

“I want to see the presents!” he whined.

“You lost that privilege when you failed at your job,” Vansell snapped. He grabbed onto Mortimus’s wrist and yanked him backwards. “Now keep your distance before Ushas decides to file a literal restraining order against you. I’m sure you don’t want another one of those, yeah?”

Mortimus furrowed his brow. “No one else has a restraining order against me.”

“Oh, don’t they?”

Enthralled by the shiny package that Ushas was opening, Mortimus didn’t bother to respond. He watched as she tore open the packaging, and slowly opened the cardboard box beneath it. A puzzled expression appeared on her face when she saw what was inside, and she shifted the box around a few times to get a better angle on it.

Koschei leaned in and said something to her, and she shrugged and pulled it out of the box. The tiny, silver bug-looking thing was puzzling indeed. Before she had a chance to say anything about it, or put it back where it came from, a voice spoke up.

“It’s a droid,” said Drax. He still had his arms clamped around Jelpax, who, for once, didn’t look like he was being burned by the physical contact. “It’s pretty strong. Should be able to carry things, instead of asking other people to get you things all the time. There’s a remote beneath the bubble wrap.”

“Oh.” Ushas glanced down at the bug more fondly, then looked back up at him. “You made this for me?”

He shrugged. “If it doesn’t work, just give it back and I’ll fix it.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Ushas gave him a smile, but he didn’t return the gesture. “You know what? I think I’d like to see what the rest of you got me. Where are your presents?”

Koschei nearly smashed several more presents in his dive to grab his own. “Here! Here! I mean, uh. Here. Yeah. I’m cool.”

“Right.” She rolled her eyes and pulled open the package, then nodded approvingly when she saw what was inside. “Stolen beakers? Great. I’ll be able to test Drax’s bug when I bring them back.”

“No, they’re not stolen. I got them myself.”

Ushas looked at him suspiciously. “You actually bought me something?”

“Yeah.” He swallowed hard, but it appeared to be out of nerves, and not because he was lying. “It’s just that you’re always complaining about those old things from the science lab so I thought you might like ones that aren’t so smelly.”

“Right, yeah.” She closed the box and placed it back onto the table, then turned to face the rest of her friends. “Okay, so far, you’re all too thoughtful. I hate you. Except Theta, because his present wasn’t good.”

“What?!” Theta gasped. “You said that you liked it!”

“Yeah, and I’m also going to tell Lungin that I liked his key chain,” Ushas snorted. “I was just being polite, you dolt.”

“That’s really mean. Why are you being so mean to me?”

“Because you forgot to get me a present and you are never going to live that down. Now hand me another one.”

And, as she worked her way through the rest of the presents, Ushas had to admit that even though they made her life miserable sometimes, her friends had given her a pretty good birthday.

Chapter Text

Drax swallowed hard. The expression on his face was so visibly distressed that Jelpax looked to him with concern, raising a single eyebrow as if to ask what was wrong. His roommate struggled to form an answer, his eyes locked on the sheet of paper pinned to the wall in front of him.

“I got— and he— kill me— I—” The words came out in a jumble, and Jelpax knew that he was going to have to get his answer himself. He peered over Drax’s shoulder, and gasped when he saw it.

“Oh god,” he said. He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

Before Drax got the chance to respond, Magnus wandered up from behind them and glanced at the paper on the wall.

“Aw, shit.” He sighed and turned to look at Drax. “I got you as my partner? Seriously? We might as well just give up right now.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” Drax rolled his eyes, then tapped Jelpax on the shoulder aggressively. “Hey, switch partners with me.”

Jelpax gave him a look. “No way. You think I want to be partners with Magnus? And don’t suggest we partner up either because I’d really like to get a decent grade on this assignment, no offense.”

“Offense taken.” He groaned. “Goddammit, Pax. Please don’t make me do this.”

“Well shit, Drax,” said Magnus, as he dragged a loose stand of hair behind his ear. “I knew you hated me, but I didn’t realize just how bad it was. I don’t bite, you know.”

There was not a hint of amusement on Drax’s face, nor in his tone. “Is this how it’s going to be for the next week?”

“Not if we get the assignment done earlier.”

And, even though he wanted more than anything to keep his distance from Magnus, Drax knew that they were never going to finish the project in less than a day, so he didn’t bother to respond. It was too late for him to wiggle out of it. His fate was already sealed.

//

“…and that’s why, instead of leaving it until the very last second, you should have a career picked out now.”

Theta yawned for the thirty-seventh time that evening. For some ridiculous reason, every student in their year had been forced to attend some boring lecture, and he was dying to get out. The only thing that kept him from perishing right in his seat were Koschei’s jokes, and the kid behind him who kept kicking his seat. (It goes without saying that he much preferred the occasional appearance of Koschei’s handsome smile.)

Just before he slipped onto Koschei’s shoulder, his eyes heavy with sleep, the lights flickered back on in the lecture hall and he sat up quickly. Koschei must have been falling asleep as well, because he flinched when Theta suddenly jerked away from him, and blinked several times before running his hands over his face.

“Kos!” Theta slapped him in the cheek twice. “Kos, we’re free!”

In retaliation, Koschei shoved a hand into Theta’s face and pushed him backwards as he stood up. “Yeah, I can see that. You think they’ll still let us have dinner?”

“No, we missed it.” Mortimus—who had been sitting one row behind them and was quite possibly responsible for kicking Theta’s chair—groaned and shook his head. “And what for? I don’t even need this lecture. I already know exactly what I’m going to do with my life!”

“Oh, right. I forgot about your plan to be a paid stalker.”

He narrowed his eyes. “A psychologist,” he snapped. “I’m going to be a psychologist. Which is more like being paid to get up in people’s business than stalking them. I’ll only know the stuff they tell me. Well, that and the stuff that it’s easy to figure out. Like, you’re smitten.”

“What?” Koschei’s blue eyes went wide. “I’m not smitten. With who? What?”

“I don’t know. Ushas? I’m guessing it’s not Theta, and they’re the only two people aside from me who were sitting within two feet of you.”

“Why do you feel the need to do this? I don’t like either of them, nor anyone else around me, and if I did it wouldn’t be any of your business.”

Mortimus shrugged. “I’m not judging you. They’re both pretty cute.” He didn’t seem to notice Theta’s bright red blush. “I mean, Ushas kind of has that resting bitch face thing, but it’s not so bad once you get to know her and understand that she really is a bitch.”

“Wow, excuse me.” Ushas—who was sitting a row in front of Koschei and aggressively checking her notes—whipped around to look at them. “I’m not a bitch. And no offense, Koschei, but you’re going to have to get a lot smarter if you want a chance with me. Or at least apply yourself more.”

Koschei chose not to respond to the comment, and Mortimus took the silence as an opportunity to be creepier. “I think she’s right actually,” he said. “You’re the only one out of us four who’s really not sure what you want to do with the rest of your lives.”

“How could you possibly know that?” he asked.

“Because I was watching the back of your heads the whole lecture. Ushas was taking notes even though she wants to be a neurochemist, Theta was falling asleep because this meant nothing to him since he has some secret plan in place, and I clearly want to be a therapist. Or maybe a psychologist. Anyway, you were the only one who seemed like you were kind of listening to actually learn something.”

“I—” Koschei narrowed his eyes. “I know what I want to do.”

“Please don’t say ‘be a chef’,” Theta mumbled. He sighed and brushed a hand through his messy hair. “That aside, I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mort. I have literally no plans for my life. None.”

Mortimus shook his head. “Yes, you do. Otherwise you would have been paying attention at least a little bit. This whole lecture is designed as a guilt trip.”

“Okay, then fine. I know what I want to do. I just don’t know what I’m actually going to do, because what I want to do is incredibly impractical.”

“Wait a minute!” Ushas, who had gone back to her notebook, gasped and turned back around. “Theta Sigma admitting that something is unrealistic? This is unheard of!”

Theta rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with being a dreamer, Ushas. I’d rather be imaginative than go around crushing other people’s ambitions.”

“Speaking of, you’d better tell me what your dream is so that I can get on with crushing it.”

“And I’d better be getting on in general so I can steal leftovers from the kitchen,” said Mortimus, as he grabbed his bag and wandered out of the lecture hall.

Once he was gone, Koschei and Ushas both turned to Theta expectantly. “Well?” Koschei gave him a look. “Are you going to tell us?”

“I would really rather not. It’s quite silly.”

“We aren’t going to make fun of you,” Ushas assured him. “Not yet, of course. I’ll need some time to come up with proper insults first.”

Theta sighed. “Okay, fine. It’s— I want to be an explorer. Like, flying around the universe and stuff.”

“Right, that is quite silly. You’d have to grow wings to do that. Oh! I guess I didn’t need that much time to come up with remarks.”

“Would you fuck off?” Koschei waved a hand around to shoo her away, and after a quick eye-roll, she packed her things and left. Once she was definitely gone, he turned back to Theta, an oddly serious expression on his face. “You want to be an explorer?”

“That’s my dream, yeah.”

“You know that the entire universe has already been explored, don’t you?”

“That is why I said that it’s a silly dream, yes.” Theta flicked him on the nose and crossed his arms. “At least having a silly dream is better than having no dream at all.”

“Wow, okay.” Koschei leaned back in his seat and let out a puff of air. “I was just asking a question. You didn’t have to mock my lack of a direction. That’s kind of assuming that I meant something rude by what I said, when I was just trying to be a good friend.”

“How is crushing my dreams being a good friend?”

“Because I’m curious about what you’re doing, duh. I didn’t mean to tell you that you can’t do whatever it is you want to do; I was just wondering how you were intending to do it since the job’s already been done.”

Theta nodded. “Right, okay. Anyway, I’m not actually going to do it. I just wish that I could.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure there’s something left for you to explore, right?”

“I doubt it. Gallifreyans are very efficient. Every time we find something new, we’ve got full maps within a week.” He grabbed his backpack off the floor and slung it over his shoulder. “Ready to go?”

Koschei followed him reluctantly. He did want to leave the lecture hall, but he didn’t feel right ending the conversation that way. Nevertheless, he decided to put it on the backseat for the time being. He would need some better things to say if they were going to get anywhere with Theta’s dream.

//

“Mortimus, can you hand me the titanium dioxide? Mortimus? Mort—!”

He jumped when she slapped him in the cheek with a clean measuring spoon. It didn’t hurt, but the cold metal stung against his skin, waking him from his daydream. He turned to look on her, dropping the arm that his chin was previously resting on to his side.

“What did you do that for?” he whined.

“You haven’t helped me with anything yet,” Millennia snapped. “Now, you can hand me the titanium dioxide or the next hour and a half will not be pleasant.”

Mortimus rolled his eyes and handed over the container. She nodded her approval and said a quick thank you, then pushed her hair back and adjusted her safety goggles before returning to her work. All was peaceful in their early morning science class for about thirty seconds, until her stupid lab partner opened his mouth again.

“Do you know Cleltinia?” he asked, his gaze focused on the table in front of them. More specifically, the beautiful redhead sitting only a few feet away from them.

“Yes.” Millennia didn’t look over at him but continued to work on the experiment. “Please don’t tell me you’re thinking of pursuing her.”

He shrugged. “It’s like, I always thought she was ugly, but now I’m seeing her in a new light.”

“Because she’s the first girl you saw after you broke up with that last chick you were with?”

“No, seriously.” Mortimus rolled his eyes. “They put new light bulbs in the classrooms. Didn’t you notice? Everything looks brighter.”

“Really?” Millennia groaned. “Would you stop trying to get a date for one minute and help me with this? I want to get a good grade.”

“And I want to get something that rhymes with grade.”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” She took off her goggles and tossed them onto the table. “If I help you decide how to ask her out, will you please do something to help me with this experiment?”

He nodded. “I’m not totally useless. I was taking notes and shit, I’m just not particularly interested in the actual experiment. Sorry. Anyway, what do you know about Cleltinia?”

“She writes the science section in the Prydonian Paper, so you might want to get good at this stuff. Just a suggestion.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Mortimus leaned in to take a closer look at their half-finished experiment. “So, what can I do to help? It is chemistry that she likes, right? It would be a waste if she’s only into biology or something. Anything else?”

“Yes, it’s chemistry that she likes, and I’ll tell you more when she’s not two feet in front of us so we can speak at a normal volume.” She raised her voice and snapped her goggles back onto her face. “Now, how can you help? Find your notes and see if you wrote down the formula for step two, please. I think I’ve lost that page.”

Mortimus nodded and awkwardly sifted through his notebook while Millennia double-checked her own folder to see if she still had what she was looking for. After confirming that she did not, she went to finish step one while she waited for Mortimus to find the next step in the directions. It took him a surprisingly long time to find the right page, but when he did, he slid the notebook over for her to see.

Despite her efforts, Millennia couldn’t stop herself from making a face when she looked at the messy scrawl on the page. She slid her goggles onto her forehead and glanced up at Mortimus, one eyebrow raised.

“You were writing this in a hurry, yeah?” Part of her felt bad about making a comment towards his terrible handwriting, but it was almost unreadable, and she knew she would need his help to decipher it. He only shrugged in response, his gaze turning straight ahead again. That glance tipped her over. “Mort, seriously. Stop staring at her for one minute, okay? I need your help. I can’t even read this. Did you never learn how to write?”

Mortimus caught the notebook when she shoved it at him, then tossed it back onto the table. The expression on his face was unreadable, but the way he bit his lip told Millennia that he either felt bad or he was upset about something. She hoped it was the former, but realized it was probably the latter after he ignored her prodding several times.

“Okay, can you not just ignore me?” she snapped. “I know your thing is to only care when you feel like it, but sometimes you have to do things you don’t like and you’re going to have to suck it up.”

He pried at the edges of his notebook, tearing the cardboard on the outside, but said nothing. Millennia could feel her temper rising, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. She didn’t want to yell at her friend. She wasn’t going to yell at her friend.

“What’s wrong with your nails?” It was the last thing she expected to say, the most random insult in the book, but the thought came out of her mouth before she could stop it. It was almost an impulse, after noticing the dirt that surrounded his cuticles. “Do you not wash your hands? No wonder you can’t write, the pencil is slipping on grime.”

Mortimus glanced down at his fingertips, then pushed a hand through his shiny hair and bit his lip harder. He blinked several times, and the glistening around his eyes made Millennia feel terrible. She sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk, Mort, I just need you to help me with this. Please. I swear to god, I’ll help you get whatever girl you want if you just help me.”

He sighed. “Okay, but you’d better keep your promise.”

“Of course, I will.” Millennia gestured to his notebook. “Now, please help me decipher these notes.”

//

Even though he was already rather far down in the alphabet, Rallon sometimes wished that his name started with a Z. Somehow, even though most of the class had gone already, he was still terrified of giving his presentation. He swallowed hard when Professor Camaid called his name, then shook himself off, grabbed his notes, and headed up to the front of the classroom.

Rallon glanced down at his notes as he put his poster board on display and took a deep breath as he turned to face the class. He could do it. He studied for hours. There was no way he would mess up.

“Hi,” he began awkwardly, his voice shaking slightly, “I’m—”

He choked. Everyone was staring at him and he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say next. He couldn’t remember his own name.

It felt like an eternity passed while he was standing up there; everyone—including Vansell and Ushas—staring at him like he was an idiot. Ushas even put a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. Suddenly, Rallon could feel his own teeth chattering, and he forced himself to continue.

“—Rallon,” he finished. “I’m Rallon, and…”

Although it wasn’t great, it was safe to say that the rest of Rallon’s presentation went a lot better than the first sentence.

//

“Are you incapable of sitting still?”

Drax, suddenly aware of how much he was fidgeting, froze and pulled himself into a cross-legged position. Magnus almost pointed out the fact that he immediately resumed tapping his fingers on his leg but decided that making a bigger deal out of it wasn’t going to help the situation at all. Instead, he tossed a pen in Drax’s direction and nodded towards the paper in front of him.

“All right, jot down some ideas,” he said. “We need a topic for this thing.”

“Yeah, okay.” Drax grabbed the pen with his left hand, his right still tapping against his leg. He waved the pen in front of the page for a few seconds, then glanced back up at Magnus through his bangs. “You got any suggestions, or…?”

Magnus gave him a look. “You haven’t even written anything down yet.”

“That’s because I don’t have any ideas.” He leaned back against his bed frame and blew the hair out of his face. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not overly invested in this project.”

“Yeah, no, I can see that. I just didn’t expect you to actually try to piss me off. I figured you’d end up doing that unintentionally.”

Drax narrowed his eyes. “I’m not trying to piss you off. In fact, you’re the last person I’d try to piss off. I’m just being honest.”

“In that case, you’re slightly smarter and much more irritating than I thought.” Magnus grabbed the paper and pulled it closer to himself, then began to jot down some ideas. “Is there anything you feel rather strongly about? Like, politics-wise, etcetera?”

“Why?”

“Because we’re writing a persuasive essay, dumbass.” He flinched when a pillow struck him from behind. Drax glanced over and smiled at Jelpax, who shrugged in response. “Anyway, I just thought it would be easier if it was something that you’re interested in, since you hate this stuff so much.”

“Oh.” Drax hesitated for several seconds, and Magnus couldn’t tell if he was thinking or avoiding the question. “I guess I have some problems with the current medical system.”

Magnus nodded. “All right, let’s start there. Grab your pen.”

//

Millennia was quite happy that she found science interesting, or else she would have been rather bored with their three-hour class period. Instead, she paid close attention during the lecture hour; taking tons of notes and making sure that Mortimus was doing the same. He did look bored out of his mind, but he also took a decent number of notes, which she was pleased with.

Once the lecture was over, it was time for them to get back into the labs. Millennia gathered her things, pulled out her tools, and turned to see that Mortimus was doing absolutely nothing in the seat beside her. She glared at him, and he casually glanced over at her.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.

“Because you’re literally just sitting there,” she snapped. “We’re supposed to be starting our experiment, and you’re staring at Cleltinia again.”

“No, I’m not.” Mortimus rolled his eyes. “I’m not even into her anymore. I think I was just mesmerized by the new lights.”

“Great. You find another girl already?”

The expression on his face was less than amused. “No, I just realized that maybe you were right. It’s not going to kill me to be single for a while. What are we working on today?”

“Weren’t you listening?” Millennia crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. She cared deeply about her friend, but sometimes he was intolerable.

“Yeah.” Mortimus nodded. “Mostly. I didn’t hear what it was called. I really just wrote down the formulas and ignored the rest of it. I find it more interesting to read about it in the book later, rather than listen to Mr. Boring drone on for an hour.”

“Hey, that’s Theta’s favorite teacher you’re talking about. And anyway, where are those notes? We’ll need them to get started.”

He flipped through his notebook quickly and opened it up to the first page he had written on that day. He pushed it over to her, and she stared at the unintelligible scrawl for several seconds before she looked back up at him, her expression even more done than his had been before.

“Were you falling asleep during the lecture, or…?” Mortimus gave her a blank look in response, so she went on. “I can’t read this. Half of it is just scribbles. Can you not write on one line?”

“Sorry.” The response was so short, so lifeless, that she hardly knew how to respond to it. Luckily, he continued first, pushing a hand through his slightly greasy hair. “I’ll try to, uh, pay more attention next time. I guess.”

“Okay. Let’s do this then. You read the formula and I’ll do the work.”

Mortimus grabbed a pencil while she snapped on her goggles. “All right. The first thing is…”

//

“What’s this?”

Theta took the notebook from Koschei, one eyebrow raised the entire time. He had been eating a snack alone, sat on one of the steps outside of the school, when Koschei plopped down beside him and handed over the notebook. It was filled with a long list of vaguely related items; which Theta couldn’t find a connection for. He looked up at Koschei after flipping through a few pages, a visibly confused expression on his face.

“It’s a list of things you could do as an explorer,” he answered. “I was looking into it all last night and this morning, and there’s actually a lot of opportunity out there. Especially someone with your major. Well, kind of. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for your major. My major has a lot of field jobs though.”

“Okay.” Theta slid the notebook back over to him. “Are you trying to help me or rub it in my face?”

“I’m trying to help you.” He rejected the book and handed it back. “Sorry if I’m saying the wrong thing, but my intentions were all good. I thought this might encourage you to go for your dreams.”

“I mean, it’s a nice gesture, but I just don’t think you fully understand what I want to do. When I said I wanted to be an explorer, I didn’t mean I wanted to make maps for foodies. They can find their own restaurants.”

Koschei rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t really suggesting that you make maps for fatties, Thete. I just wrote down everything I could find relating to exploring. I know some of it is stupid, but I was trying to help.”

“Thank you, truly, but I’ve already accepted that it isn’t going to happen.” Theta shrugged and placed the notebook onto the step beside him. “I’m not upset about it or anything. Plus, I’ve got plenty of time to figure out something else, so it’s really not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m your best friend. It’s my job to worry about it.”

“No, a best friend’s job is to make fun of me. Maybe if you were my boyfriend, though.”

“Now you’re getting ahead of yourself.” Koschei nudged his shoulder and Theta snorted. “One thing at a time, you idiot.”

“Ah, there’s the name-calling I’ve come to love.” He clutched his chest dramatically.

Before either of them had a chance to crack another joke through their laughter, someone walked down the steps behind them, his head ducked beneath a black hoodie. Theta furrowed his brow and looked up at him as he hurried past.

“Rallon?” he said, unsure. The body language and clothing were correct, but he couldn’t think of any good reason for Rallon to be outdoors at that hour—especially not while hiding beneath his good.

“Shh!” Rallon turned back to look at them before he reached the bottom of the steps, then glanced around to make sure no one had heard. He pulled his hood down before he spoke, his voice unnaturally quiet. “Please don’t say my name that loudly.”

“Why?” asked Koschei, making no effort to adjust his own volume. “Are you on the run or something?”

“Yeah, kind of. I’m quite honestly afraid that Vansell and Ushas are trying to murder me with words.”

Theta frowned. “Really? Those two? I mean, I know they’re both rather pissy, but they’re not remarkably mean.”

“Eh.” Rallon shrugged and made a face. “I guess I’m just so stupid that they have to up their level of insults to be able to keep up.”

“What did you do?” Koschei didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact that Rallon was clearly not interested in talking about it, his tone entirely casual. “Come on. I won’t hold it against you.”

“I… stood up in front of a class and forgot my own name.”

The first person to laugh was Theta, who spit his soda all over the stairs, but Koschei was only seconds behind. Rallon didn’t look the least bit amused by their laughter, but he wasn’t angry either. He just stared at them blankly, nodding as if he knew that he was, in fact, an idiot.

“Okay, all right, I get it,” he said lamely. “Would you stop laughing at me now?”

They did not.

//

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Drax snapped. He was again sitting on the floor in his bedroom, his hair severely messed up from his own fidgety hands twisting it around. When he spoke, he moved his hands around in a dramatic gesture, doing anything to get his point across. “I am fine with that. I understand why they do that. My problem is with the doctors’ privacy regulations.”

Magnus rolled his eyes. What had started as an idea for their essay quickly devolved into an argument, and obviously he believed himself to be in the right, even though both of them had equally valid points. Jelpax started watching as soon as the debate got heated and had been keeping an eye on them for several minutes by that point—mostly out of sheer curiosity.

“Okay, so let me get this straight,” he said, “you think that doctors should be allowed to dig into people’s personal lives, even if it’s not relevant to the treatment, and therefore none of their business?”

“No! God. I don’t know how to make you understand this.” Drax dropped his head into his hands and stayed like that for several seconds before he pushed his hands through his hair again and looked back up, chewing lamely on his right thumbnail. “Say there’s a kid who comes into the nurse’s office with like, a large bruise under his eye. The nurse assumes he’s telling the truth when he says he walked into a wall, but that’s not it. He…” He hesitated and wet his lips before continuing. “Maybe he got hit by his mother, and he’s too frightened to talk about it, and the nurse could help him, but she’s not allowed to ask about reasoning because that’s not her job. But he can’t talk to the right people either, because his mum keeps tabs on that. So, he’s just stuck in this abusive limbo because nobody—and I’m including professors in this, those laws are bullshit too—nobody can ask him what happened to his eye.”

Magnus was silent for several seconds while he considered the situation, and Drax didn’t go on, dragging his hands over his face. Jelpax ended up being the one to break the silence, his brow furrowed as he leaned forward in his seat, as if he were ready to stand up at any second.

“Drax, are you okay?”

He nodded but didn’t look up. “Yeah,” he answered, his voice just barely shaking. “Yeah, I’m just very passionate about this.”

“Oh, right.” Jelpax wasn’t entirely convinced, but he didn’t want to doubt his best friend—especially in front of Magnus—so he let it go. Especially since Drax seemed to recover quite quickly, going from almost upset to twitchy and impatient in less than a minute.

“Are you going to add anything, Magnus?” he snapped. “I’m sure you think my argument is thin, but it’d still be nice if you rejected me. We’re not going to make any progress if you don’t keep shooting down my stupid ideas.”

Magnus frowned. “Actually, I was thinking that you made a rather good point,” he said slowly. “I never thought I’d say something like this, but within your hypothetical, I think you’ve made a decent argument that less boundaries could prove more beneficial.”

“Wait, what?” Drax’s jaw dropped, his eye widening in shock. “You actually think that I did something right? I’m correct? I’m going to be honest, I never thought that this day would come. I—”

“Okay, don’t make this into something it’s not. For all you know, I’m just going along with this so that we can actually have something to turn in. And just to be clear, I still think you’re a dumbass, just not a complete dumbass.”

“Fair enough. But you agree with my opinion, though?”

“Honestly, yeah.” Magnus didn’t look exactly pleased to say it, but he wasn’t in the mood to lie. “I guess I never thought of it from that perspective before.”

“Well, they aren’t easy shoes to put yourself in. Are we going with this topic for the essay then?”

“Unless you’d like to debate another topic.”

Drax shook his head. “I think we did enough of that today. Where did I put my pen?”

//

“Oh, god.”

Rallon ducked behind a tree when he saw Ushas and Vansell approaching and pulled his hood over his face. The last thing he wanted was for them to make fun of him again, just like they had when he first walked out of the classroom. It was already humiliating enough to have forgotten his own name—he didn’t understand why they felt the need to mock him too.

He slipped out of his hiding place once he couldn’t see or hear Ushas and Vansell anymore and continued on his way down the path; walking as quietly as he could. Even if he thought that they were gone, Rallon knew he couldn’t trust it. They had found him somehow, in the least likely place for him to be, and he was sure they were still searching for him.

Although a part of him hoped that he was wrong, Rallon managed to prove himself right when he turned a corner, only to come face-to-face with his roommate. Vansell smiled at him smugly, his arms crossed against his chest.

“Are you hiding from something, Rallon?” he asked.

Rallon wet his lips and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “No. Of course not! Why would I be hiding from something?”

“Maybe because you forgot your own name and you’re highly embarrassed about it?”

“I guess, yeah,” he muttered. “I’d rather not say for sure, but there’s a chance that could, possibly, have something to do with it.”

“Right.” Vansell glanced around the large tree, almost as if he were looking for someone, then dragged Rallon to the other side of it. “All right, look. I have a proposition for you.”

“Okay, but I should tell you that I’m rather uncomfortable right now.”

He rolled his eyes and took a step back. “Ushas has been driving me absolutely bonkers the last few days,” he started. “We’re partners for an assignment, and she’s just been going on and on about how she’s so much smarter than me. So, I think she deserves a little retaliation, yeah?”

“I… guess so?” Rallon didn’t want to say ‘no’, but he wasn’t comfortable agreeing either.

“So, here’s what I was thinking we do—and, full disclaimer, it’s completely harmless…”

//

“Okay, I know you weren’t a big fan of the notebook thing, but I have another idea.”

Koschei closed the door behind him a little too forcefully, and surprised Theta with the loud sound. He dropped the book he was holding and rolled right out of his bed onto the floor. Confused and concerned, Koschei ran over to him and offered a hand to pull him to his feet. Theta accepted the help, keeping one hand on the book he lost.

“Why did you do that?” asked Theta. He placed the book onto a pillow and pushed his hands through his hair as he sat back down on the bed. “Are you mad at me or something?”

“What? No.” Koschei took a seat down beside him. “I wasn’t trying to— why were you sitting on my bed?”

Theta shrugged. “Where have you been all afternoon?”

“I was looking for ways I could make your dream come true.”

“Really?” He snorted. “You’re my fairy godmother now? Come on, Kos. I already told you that it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does. You know what, Thete? It’s huge that you have actual plans for your life. Goals and ambitions. And even if they’re slightly unrealistic, it’s still much more thought than any of us have put into our lives. Not counting Ushas and Mortimus, of course, though I do think he’s a bit confused on his plans.”

“Is there a point to this?” Theta crossed his arms and slid back towards the pillows.

Koschei sighed. “Obviously there is, you’re just not patient enough for it. Now, listen. I have an idea that I think is going to make you change your mind on not being an explorer.”

“Seriously, Kos, there’s nothing you can do. It’s not something you can fix, unless you can magically un-discover everything. You—”

“I want to come with you.”

The expression on Theta’s face fell, his eyes going wide in surprise. “You want to explore things with me? In space? Like partners?”

“Yeah. You and me. We’ll be the space boyfriends, traveling the universe and seeing new things.” He made a face. “Platonic space boyfriends.”

“‘Platonic’,” Theta repeated, using air quotes as emphasis. “Just two guys, exploring the universe, calling themselves boyfriends, flying around in a ship probably named the SS No Homo.”

“The SS No Homo.” Koschei nodded as he slung an arm around Theta’s shoulder. “I can see it now. You and I are going to accomplish so much together, even if there’s not technically anything that needs to be done.” He pulled away again. “That is, if you’ll agree to come with me.”

Theta smiled, but shook his head, and Koschei’s heart sank. It was his last idea. The only other thing he could think of that might give Theta the drive he needed to follow his dreams, and it didn’t work. He had nothing.

“I don’t want to give you false hope, Kos. I just need something else. This sounds wonderful, really, but it’s not productive. I want to make an impact, and hanging out with you, fucking around on planets, isn’t going to accomplish anything.”

“Actually, that depends on how you look at it.”

He didn’t get a chance to finish before Theta stood up. “There’s only one way I can look at it and still follow my dream, Kos. And it doesn’t include stripping you of your own potential.”

“Theta, wait.” Koschei followed him over to the door but didn’t chase him when he walked out. He’d done enough damage already, and he knew he couldn’t go back to his friend without another idea.

//

“I’m going to fucking scream.”

“Please don’t,” said Jelpax, not looking up from his own homework. “Some of us are trying to work.”

Magnus sighed and flipped over the notebook and stack of pencils that were laid out in front of him. Beside him, Drax was less than happy, and he showed it with the annoyed expression on his face. They had been working on their project for two days and several hours at that point, and yet they had somehow gotten almost nothing done so far. (Mostly because of Drax, who was evidently terrible at Gallifreyan class, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t bitch about it.)

“Yeah, and unfortunately that’s not me,” Magnus remarked. “Are you incapable of coming up with anything, Drax?”

“No,” he snapped. “I invent gadgets all the time. I can draw blueprints too.”

“Wow. I’m so impressed. That’s definitely going to help us with our essay.”

Drax narrowed his eyes. “You know, I’m all right with you insulting me, but when you resort to sarcasm that’s when you get really mean. Do you really have to be such a dick?”

“Yes, I do.” Magnus uncrossed his arms and leaned back against one of the beanbag chairs. “It’s in my nature.”

Before Drax had the chance to come up with a witty remark, someone knocked on the door and Jelpax gestured for him to answer it. He reluctantly stood up and walked over to their literally unlocked door, then swung it open, leaning one hand against the edge of it and placing the other on his hip.

“Uh, hi?” Millennia looked rather confused by the pissed-off expression on his face. “I was just looking for Mortimus.”

“Goddamn,” said Magnus, not turning to look at them. “I never thought I’d see the day you came looking for a date.”

She rolled her eyes. “No, he’s my lab partner and I haven’t seen him since class this morning. We were supposed to meet up to exchange notes like an hour ago, and he’s not answering my messages. I knocked on your door too, but no one answered so I thought he might be here.”

“Unfortunately not.” Drax shook his head and shrugged.

“Was the door unlocked?” asked Magnus. “’Cause if it is, he’s not there. If it’s actually locked, then he’s inside. I doubt he’s upset with you, so he’s probably just taking a nap or something.”

Millennia hesitated. “It was locked. I guess I should come back later then?”

“Yeah, if he doesn’t come looking for you first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him wake up and immediately freak out about how late he is for whatever.” Finally, Magnus stood up and walked over to the door, while Drax slid back into his seat. “Although, he’s not usually an hour late. Normally I’d say he’s pissed or moping about something at this point, but I haven’t heard him complaining about anyone recently. I mean, he was complaining about me yesterday, but other than that.”

“Oh. Oh, no. I think I might have actually upset him. I didn’t—I didn’t mean to, but I’ve been really harsh on him about being involved and taking notes and everything.”

“No, you’re all right. People yell at him for that all the time. If it bothered him then he would have changed something by now.”

“Okay.” Millennia nodded, but she wasn’t so sure that he was right. “I mean, I was kind of being a jerk. I shouted at him for having a crush yesterday.”

“Reasonable. He has a new crush every week.”

“And I made remarks about his personal hygiene.”

“Justified. Have you seen the state of his room?”

“But I also made fun of his handwriting, and—”

Magnus’s eyes went wide, and he threw his hands up in a dramatic gesture. “Whoa, okay, no. I know that he gets really annoying sometimes, but you have to know where to stop.”

“What?” The comment made no sense to Millennia, and no matter how she twisted the situation, she couldn’t think of any reasonable explanation for it. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“There are some things that you can’t make fun of. Like Koschei’s family or Drax’s breakdowns.” Drax ducked when Magnus gestured in his direction. “You crossed a line.”

“How? I don’t see how this is any different from you making fun of his appetite.”

“I can make fun of his appetite because he’s a five-foot-nine pencil who eats enough to feed a sumo wrestler. I don’t think you understand the concept of the barrier.”

Millennia glared at him. “I understand the concept of the barrier just fine,” she snapped. “What I don’t understand is why Mortimus’s handwriting is off-limits.”

“Because the idiot has dysgraphia.” Magnus crossed his arms and gave Millennia a look. “I’ve been telling him to get tutoring for years.”

Her heart sank. Words couldn’t describe how bad she felt about what she had said to him. They weren’t just vaguely rude comments about his handwriting, they were horrible insults mocking his something that he couldn’t control.

“Oh, my god.” Millennia put a hand up to her mouth gently. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Magnus nodded, clearly not bothered by her reaction. “Yeah, you did. Now, would you mind getting lost? We’re kind of in the middle of something here.”

“In the middle of sitting around and arguing,” Jelpax specified.

“You know,” he snapped, turning his head back around, “for pretending to ignore us, you sure have a lot of opinions about the way we work.”

“That’s because you work like idiots.”

Millennia didn’t stick around to listen to them argue. She had to find Mortimus and apologize before the guilt ate her alive.

//

Ushas grinned when she saw Vansell and Rallon walking up to her table in the study hall. “Oh, there’s the idiot of the hour!” she said gleefully. “And Vansell.”

Rallon rolled his eyes and leaned in towards his roommate. “Is this definitely going to work?” he whispered.

“Yes,” he answered. “This is the greatest idea I’ve ever had. Now shut up and sit down before she gets suspicious.”

The two of them slid into the bench across from Ushas, unloading several random study materials so they might look like they were actually there to do something. If she thought their whispering was odd, Ushas didn’t say anything, and allowed them to get on with their ploy. After a few seconds, she looked up at Rallon, whose hand was hovering over a piece of paper.

“Have you forgotten your name again?” she asked, raising one eyebrow.

Rallon frowned. “What do you mean?”

“If you’re going to pretend that you never wasted my time by flubbing your presentation yesterday, then don’t. Some of us actually have things to do, and my agenda today does not include listening to your pointless denial.” She grabbed a pencil and leaned back over her own work, then glanced up when she realized that Vansell was staring at her. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“No reason,” he answered, keeping his voice casual. “I was just wondering if I’ve missed something.”

“Like what? I’m not going to help you with your homework, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“I’ve literally never asked you for help, why would I do that?” Vansell rolled his gray eyes. “No, I just don’t understand the joke you made about Rallon forgetting his name. Did something funny happen when I wasn’t around? I know I have a habit of missing things.”

Ushas shook her head and dropped her pencil onto the table. “No, I’m referring to his abysmal presentation the other day. You were there.”

“Was I? Huh. I think I’d remember something like that.”

“Me too,” said Rallon. He leaned forward in his seat, an overly puzzled expression on his face. “I mean, I know that I can be rather thick sometimes, but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to forget my own name and then forget that I forgot. I mean, who’s dumb enough to forget that they forgot?”

Vansell smirked at the phrasing, as it threw off Ushas so badly that she spent several seconds just staring at him before she finally spoke again. “Okay, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull right now, but it’s not working. I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re not.” Vansell kept his voice level, and Rallon was impressed with how smooth his lies were. “Maybe you’re just a little bit forgetful. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Rallon glanced over at his friend to see if he was making any implications with his statement, but it was impossible to tell. “Yeah. Nothing wrong with admitting you’re wrong either, is there?”

“Okay, no. I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but it’s not going to work. You forgot your name. That happened. We were all there.”

“‘We’ who? Maybe you got us mixed up with someone else. There are an awful lot of students in this Academy.”

“You— goddammit, Rallon.” She shoved all her study materials into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Whatever this is, it’s not working. Don’t look for me later.”

Vansell waited until she had run out of the study hall before he turned to Rallon and grinned. “I don’t know what conclusion she’s going to come to,” he said, “but we definitely had her shaken up for a minute there, and that’s a look I’ll never forget.”

“Priceless,” he agreed. “So, we’re good then? No more mocking?”

“Actually, and this is rather funny,” Vansell began, “you were so nervous when I found you that we never worked out your side of the deal. I promised you nothing.”

Rallon’s face fell, and his expression remained frozen in shock and disappointment even once Vansell was long gone.

//

Mortimus ignored the knocking on his door and decided to outright shun it when he heard Millennia’s voice accompanying it. He wasn’t necessarily mad at her, nor upset with her in any way, but the last thing he wanted to do at the moment was talk to her. Though he didn’t want to stop seeing her entirely, he needed a break, and he wasn’t about to let her in unexpected.

“I know you’re in there Mortimus,” she said. “Just open the door, please. I’m really sorry about what I did.”

He groaned and rolled up out of his bed. Finally, he was alone, able to sit in his bedroom without Magnus making jackass comments all the time, and he had to deal with someone else making comments that were teetering on just as bad. Despite his true feelings about the situation, Mortimus walked over and pulled open the door, one eyebrow raised.

“What do you want, Mil?” he asked, intentionally adding a certain level of annoyance to his tone. “I’m in the middle of something.”

Millennia peered around him but was unable to confirm his story due to the hoards of junk on his half of the room. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry,” she answered. “I was being a total jerk earlier and I feel really bad about it. I shouldn’t have been so rude about your work.”

“Right.” Mortimus leaned against the doorway and narrowed his eyes. “You know, yeah?”

“Sorry?” Although she sounded oblivious, she clearly knew what he was talking about, as her eyes went wide in defense when he spoke. “Know what?”

“You know what. Don’t make me tell you.”

He slid to the side and took a step back, allowing Millennia to step into the room. She did so but didn’t get so far in that she felt uncomfortable—whether it was Mortimus intimidating her or his piles of junk, she couldn’t say, but she stayed near the doorway when he went back and plopped down onto his bed.

“I’m really sorry, Mortimus,” she said, her arms crossed. “I didn’t know.”

Mortimus nodded. “I’m aware, and I’m not angry at you. I didn’t ask for an apology.”

“I know, but I thought I owed you one. I feel really bad about what I did.”

“So, you don’t feel bad because you hurt me, you feel bad because you accidentally bruised your own nice-girl persona? And now you’re trying to get me to validate that you did nothing wrong, even though you did, just because you didn’t know. Which isn’t your fault but doesn’t excuse being a jerk about anything.”

“You know, this is why people don’t talk to you.” Millennia hated throwing such a blow, but his words pissed her off and she felt the need to defend herself from his attacks. “You are creepy. I don’t need you to analyze my intentions. Quite honestly, I hadn’t considered that could even be the reason until you just said it right now. And that’s the problem. People don’t want to know everything about themselves.”

He didn’t skip a beat. “Why wouldn’t anyone want to know anything about that? I don’t do what I do with poor intentions, Millennia. What people choose to do with the information I give them is their choice, but I feel like it’s my obligation to share it. I’m trying to help. You know that I just want to help.”

“But nobody asked for your help. That’s your problem. You know everything about everyone, and you expect them to know things about you too.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t expect anyone to know anything about me.”

“Then why wouldn’t you say something to me when I was being a jerk?” Millennia snapped. “Why wouldn’t you just tell me that what I said hurt and you wanted me to stop? You can read people like nobody’s business, but I don’t know how to do that. I can’t read your mind.”

For a moment, Mortimus seemed like he was going to back down. He bit his lip and looked down at his hands. Then, suddenly, he stood up and walked across the room so he would be closer to her, and almost aggressive expression on his face.

“All right, fine. You want to know everything about me?” he snapped. “I haven’t taken a shower in like a month. I don’t know why; I just don’t even think about it anymore. I’m not straight, and I’d appreciate it if you and everyone else would stop using the term ‘girls’ to refer to my plentiful crushes. I’d also like it if you’d all stop making fun of me for that because we all cope differently, all right?”

“Mortimus—”

“I’m actually failing my best class right now, because apparently I can’t listen to people talk about nervous breakdowns. Which is really going to fuck up my career, yeah? But I don’t even know what I’m going to do about that, since— you know what? Did I ever tell you that I was on antipsychotics the entire time I was in primary school? No? Well, I was, because my dad fucking killed himself.”

“I—”

“Also, just for the record, I’ve never actually been diagnosed with dysgraphia. But my professors and Magnus have been trying to talk me into tutoring for ages now, so I guess that counts for something. And I didn’t assume that you knew about it or thought you should know everything about me. I chose not to tell you because I knew that you’d feel like shit when you found out, so. Sorry for trying to be a good friend. I guess it backfired.”

He finally cut off his rant after that, and Millennia swallowed hard. She didn’t even know where to start with what he said, and she felt terrible that he felt the need to say tell her all of that. She knew that she had no business knowing all those things, and part of her wanted to forget about it right away. Of course, she couldn’t, so instead she forced herself to come up with something to say.

“I am so sorry,” she said finally, her tone entirely genuine. “I had no idea about your father.”

Mortimus didn’t even blink, the expression on his face devoid of all emotion. “You weren’t supposed to. Actually, I’m kind of regretting saying anything about that now. You won’t talk about that, right? Because I don’t think I want everyone to know about it yet. Especially the part about the antipsychotics. It makes me sound like I’m crazy, but I’m not. I’m not crazy. I haven’t even taken them once since I’ve been at the Academy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Millennia nodded quickly. “I’m not— I won’t tell anyone about what you said. Any of it. I won’t even think about it if you don’t want me to.”

“I mean, I told you about it, so you don’t have to bother forgetting your knowledge now.” His eyes were widened just slightly, making Millennia fear for his current mental state. “That’s not to say I want to talk about it, though. In fact, I’d probably be most comfortable if you would go back to making fun of my handwriting because that way, I can pretend this never happened.”

“I’m really not comfortable doing that.”

“Okay. Maybe we should just switch partners then, so we don’t have to address this anymore.”

“I don’t want to switch partners,” said Millennia. Her voice was getting lower by the word, addressing the fact that she had no idea what to do or say next. “I really didn’t mean to make a mess out of this. Honestly, I was only even looking for you today because you never showed up when were meant to exchange notes. Which, by the way, I’d still like to do if you aren’t completely uncomfortable around me now.”

Mortimus shook his head. “No, of course not. Hold on, I’ll go get my stuff.”

Though a small part of her was still mad at him, Millennia was quite glad that their fight blew over so quickly, and she didn’t even complain about the mess as she followed Mortimus over to his study area. Some things just weren’t worth arguing about—no matter how much she wished she could convince him to take a shower.

//

“…and quite honestly shocked that you’ve actually managed to produce something without Drax dying, through murder or suicide…”

When Drax initially suggested letting Jelpax proofread their essay, he hadn’t expected him to babble for so long about how it was actually decent and surprisingly convincing. Magnus seemed to enjoy the praise, but Drax was getting bored quite quickly, and wanted nothing more than for him to shut up so they could get on with their day.

“…really, what I’m most surprised about is that you actually gave a shit.” He pointed to Drax when he spoke, his eyes still focusing on the essay in his hands. “Not to say you don’t care about anything, it’s just that I’ve never heard you talk about something like this and I find it rather interesting that you’re so passionate about it. When did this start?”

“I don’t know.” Drax shrugged lamely, unknowingly lifting his hand to nibble on his thumbnail again. “Probably in politics class a few years ago. I guess I just heard about the laws at some point and thought they were bullshit. It’s really nothing personal.”

Jelpax nodded, and it was almost impossible to tell whether he was convinced. “I guess that makes sense,” he said. “People connect with the strangest stories. I once had a lab partner who was completely obsessed with equality for tafelshrews because he read about them in some vegan gossip magazine.”

“It was Dourgonn, wasn’t it?” asked Magnus.

“Yeah, it was Dourgonn.”

“Anyway,” Drax cut in, “you think the assignment is good, then? So, we can go ahead and turn it in?”

“I think so.” Jelpax leaned forward in his chair and handed it back over to them. “I’m no expert, obviously, but I thought it was rather good. I was actually uneducated in this particular issue and you’ve managed to make me take your side, so I’d definitely call it persuasive.”

“Fantastic. I think we’re done here then.”

Magnus nodded. “Thank god.”

//

Theta was sitting on the steps outside of the Academy when Koschei found him. Luckily, the weather was nice, and Koschei felt comfortable sitting down beside Theta. He was hunched over a sketchbook, working busily on a new pencil drawing. Koschei didn’t say anything at first but glanced over Theta’s shoulder at the beautiful beginnings of a sketch. He watched him draw for nearly a minute before he realized he’d gotten sidetracked and slid away slightly.

“Hey,” he said, breaking the silence. Theta didn’t look up, nor remove his pencil from the page. “It looks like you don’t really want to speak to me right now, but unfortunately, I’m going to have to be annoying and talk while you’re trying to work. Sorry, but that’s just how it’s going to be.”

“I hate you sometimes.” Theta still didn’t turn his gaze towards him, but continued sketching.

“I know you do.” Koschei nodded slowly. “But I think you’re going to hate me a lot less once I tell you what I thought about today.”

“What?”

“You.”

Finally, Theta turned to look at him, his expression unreadable. He stared at Koschei expectantly, and unfortunately it was just enough pressure to make him forget what he was going to say, which made Theta roll his eyes. He nearly resumed working on his sketch, but Koschei composed himself and spoke quickly to stop his attention from getting away.

“I was thinking really hard about what might motivate you to become an explorer,” he began, “and I know that nothing I’ve done was enough. Although, I do want to specify that I’m still absolutely willing to come with you, no matter how you end up responding to my suggestion. So, without further ado, here’s what I had in mind…”

There was a time during which Theta was not interested in hearing what Koschei had to say. But as he spoke, explaining his plan, his ideas, his reason, Theta’s heart began to melt. It wasn’t just an idea; it was everything that he ever needed to hear. The only thing that could have ever changed his mind. Something so inspirational, so imaginative, that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of the words to pay Koschei back.

So, instead, he just gave him a hug and said, “Thank you.”

//

“I mean, I’m honestly shocked. I can’t say that it’s the first good grade you’ve ever gotten, but I still find myself surprised every time I see you walk in here with something higher than an eighty. Of course, you did have help from both Magnus and Jelpax, so it’s not like it was all thanks to you, but I still think it deserves some recognition. I mean, look at you! You’re not a complete dumbass!”

Drax dropped his head onto the desk he was sitting at and sighed loudly. Ushas had been going on for several minutes at that point, tainting their weekly meeting with her praise over his mildly impressive score. It was nice at first, but it hit a point where he no longer wanted to hear about it.

He turned to look at Jelpax, planning to make a goofy expression, but froze when he realized that Jelpax was already staring at him, his brown eyes slightly narrowed in concern. Drax sighed and glanced over his shoulder before he turned back to face him.

“It was just a hypothetical,” he whispered.

Jelpax nodded but didn’t say anything; the concerned look remaining on his face even when he turned to look back at Ushas right before she was cut off.

“Anyway,” Vansell interrupted, clearly at the end of his own rope, “you want to tell these lot about how you’re losing your mind?”

Ushas narrowed her eyes. “I am not losing my mind. You’re just trying to trip me up.”

“What do you mean? It was just a joke about how you forgot your own name in class the other day.”

“No, I didn’t,” she snapped. “Rallon forgot his own name. How would I forget my own name? I’m not stupid.”

“And yet you are,” he said, “because I’m fairly certain someone as smart as you’re supposed to be would never just forget that you forgot. Perhaps you’ve got some sort of brain damage going on in there. You might want to get that checked out.”

Even though only one other person in the room understood the joke, Vansell thought it was worth ending the meeting early for the priceless look on Ushas’s face.

Chapter Text

Theta dashed into his dorm room, slamming the door shut behind him so loudly that it woke Koschei from his unintentional slumber. He jerked up to look at Theta, who was panting as if he’d just run a marathon, his hazel eyes wide with what looked like fear.

“I did a bad thing,” he said, his tone frantic. “I did a really bad thing.”

Koschei stood up quickly and ran over to him, his own eyes widening in terror. “What? What did you do?”

“I—” Theta seemed almost reluctant to answer, as if not saying anything would be worse than revealing the horrible things he had done. “I fed Valyes’s summer project to a snapping wart fowl.”

“What?” His jaw dropped, his bright blue eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

“I fed Valyes’s summer project to a snapping wart fowl,” he repeated, this time slower and with more emphasis.

Koschei didn’t know what to say. His eyes were burning from his sudden inability to blink, and his heart was pounding in fear for his friend. “I mean, what the— how did you—?”

“I don’t know. I just was just walking around with my snapping wart fowl, yeah? And then it jumped away, and I lost it, and I just barely caught the tail end of her… consuming his project.”

“Oh, god.” He ran a hand down his face and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “You know that you’ve just ruined everything that he was working on for the last three months, yeah?”

“No, I’m freaking out because everything is perfectly fine!” Theta groaned and flopped down onto his bed, burying his face into his pillows. “What am I going to do, Kos?”

“Well, first you have to fess up to your mistake before Valyes finds out himself. Then you’re going to have to drag yourself into the nurse’s office after he near beats you to death.”

Theta responded only by screaming into his pillow.

//

“Today, we’ll be doing our exercise in groups of three,” said Borusa, glancing down at the notebook in front of him. “If I call on you, you’ve been randomly selected as a team leader and you will be able to choose your teammates. First up is Lungin.”

Ushas rolled her eyes when his name was called. “The idiot can barely waddle,” she muttered. “How is he meant to lead a group through the woods? Oh, thank god he didn’t pick me. I might be the smartest one out here, but that doesn’t mean I want to get stuck with the stupids.”

“That’s kind of rude,” Rallon whispered. He kept his gaze pointing ahead, so as not to seem distracted. “I hope you do get put on a ‘stupid’ team so that you can understand what other people are like. Or just be punished. One of the two.”

“More like both, but I’d gain nothing from the first thing. Hanging out with idiots is the least rewarding—wait, did he say our names? Who just picked us?”

Rallon smiled when their team leader walked over and handed them their equipment, but Ushas rolled her eyes, less than pleased with their new teammate.

“You can’t be serious,” she said, her look of disgust not well hidden at all. “Who thought that you would be any sort of a good leader?”

“Wow.” Mortimus feigned offense. “If I didn’t know you were trying to make up for your bruised ego right now, I’d be really bothered by that comment. At this point, though, I’m just quite glad that I’m able to be in charge of something. I’m going to have to get used to telling people what to do if I’m going to be a psychologist someday.”

“Aren’t you supposed to listen to people for that?” asked Rallon.

He shrugged. “It depends on the person. Some people just need a little guidance in their lives. Like you. Are you ever going to take charge, or do you like always being in the backseat?”

“I like it when you don’t analyze everything I do,” he answered awkwardly. “Didn’t we talk about this once?”

“Yeah, and? I’m just making sure you’re comfortable with never being the driving force in your own life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I know that some people enjoy being bossed around. Although that’s usually because of family issues. You’re from a rather large political family, yeah? Were you bossed around a lot when you were a kid?”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” Rallon took a deep breath and shook his head, not bothering to answer the question.

Ushas, on the other hand, slapped Mortimus across the shoulder. “What did he just ask you not to do, you idiot?”

“Nothing. He only told me that he doesn’t like it when I do that. He didn’t necessarily ask me to stop, so I don’t really see anything wrong with what I’m doing. Quite honestly, I think it’s rather helpful when I give people advice on how to live their lives. He’d be much more confident if he were more independent.”

“I am independent just fine,” Rallon snapped. “Now can you just tell us what to do? Everyone else has left already.”

Mortimus glanced around awkwardly, as if he hadn’t noticed the rest of the class leaving. “All right, but I’d like it on the record that you told me to tell you what to do.”

“Because you were appointed leader.”

“Or so you’ll have me believe.”

//

“…and quite honestly, I knew it wasn’t going to end well, but I just went ahead and did it anyways.”

Drax was sitting at the Deca’s normal lunch table, one arm draped around Jelpax’s shoulders and the other gesturing dramatically along with his story. To be quite honest, Magnus wasn’t even sure what he was going on about, but he knew that it had something to do with pulling a prank or pissing off a professor or something—AKA nothing out of the ordinary.

Instead of focusing on what Drax was saying, Magnus found himself distracted by his intrusive mannerisms; flapping his arms around like an idiot right beside Jelpax. Somehow, Jelpax didn’t even seemed bothered by the arm sprawled around his shoulders, and managed to stay completely focused on his book, as if he’d become accustomed to Drax’s incessant babbling and was able to completely tone it out.

“…so, then, I— what?” He looked over at Jelpax, who said nothing, but gestured to his watch. “Oh, shit. Okay, I’m going. I’ll finish the story at dinner.”

He swung his legs over the bench and grabbed his bag before trudging out of the dining hall. Millennia—who had been listening to his story while she ate her snack—waved to him before he left, but Magnus just watched him go, then turned to look at Jelpax once he was out of earshot.

“Why do you let him do that?” he asked.

Jelpax looked up from the book he was reading. “Do what?”

“Hang all over you. You’ve said about a thousand times that you don’t like physical contact, but you let him drape himself over you like a blanket. Why?”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” He slid a bookmark into the pages of his hardback and tossed it onto the table.

Magnus rolled his eyes. “Just now, when he was talking, he had an arm around your shoulder. For like a half an hour. Or yesterday, you were sitting on the couch at the library and he had his legs sprawled over your lap like you were just part of the cushions. You’re ridiculously uncomfortable with people touching you, and you can’t stand it when they babble, and yet you give him endless grace on both of those things. And don’t say you don’t know what that means.”

“I let him get away with it because he’s my best friend,” Jelpax answered casually. “For starters, I’ve gotten used to the chatter over the years. And for another, it’s not the same as if someone I didn’t know very well were to touch me. Honestly, I’d be fine with any of you touching me, he just happens to be the most physical.”

“Really?” Magnus leaned over the table and tapped his arm. In response, Jelpax visibly flinched. “Then what was that?”

“Okay, maybe I’ve gotten more comfortable with him over time, but it’s not a big deal. We’ve known each other forever.”

“You should just tell him that it bothers you. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Jelpax, furrowing his brow. “I really don’t have a problem with people touching me. Well, maybe you, like you saw, but that’s because you’re kind of a jackass.”

He gave him a look. “I know, and that’s not the problem. You should just talk to him about it. I’m surprised he doesn’t know already.”

“You know, this really isn’t your place to say anything.” Millennia’s tone wasn’t harsh, nor intrusive, but matter of fact. “I know that you’re just trying to help him, but if he says that he’s okay with it, then you should really just leave it be.”

“But he’s not comfortable with it.” He turned his gaze back across the table. “Jelpax, there is literally nothing you can say to convince me that you weren’t bothered at all when you were trying to read just then. I was annoyed just watching you two. There’s nobody who would want to have someone babbling and gesturing in their face while they’re trying to do things.”

“I never said I wanted him there,” Jelpax retaliated, “I just said that it didn’t bother me. But if you do want me to be honest, this is quite bothersome, so I think I might actually leave now.”

Magnus just shrugged when he stood up to leave. “Your loss.”

“I had nothing to gain.”

Jelpax didn’t look back when he left the dining hall.

//

“What am I even going to say?” Theta groaned. He was twiddling his fingers anxiously, walking down the hall with his eyes widened in fear.

Koschei shrugged. “I don’t know. You could go right up to him and say something like, ‘Hey, Valyes, my bird ate your project, and now you’re going to fail your biology course.’”

“That’s not even funny.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be funny. It was a literal suggestion.”

“Oh, my god.” Theta sighed and slapped one hand against his forehead. “This is just the worst day ever, isn’t it?”

“I’m not going to go so far as to say that,” said Koschei, “but this is one of the most terrible things that you have ever done. I wasn’t joking when I said that he’s going to fail his biology course because of this. You know how important those assignments are to our final grades.”

He nodded glumly, subtly slowing his pace when he realized that they were getting closer to Valyes’s dorm room. He knew that Koschei was right—he was going to have to face up to Valyes—but that didn’t mean that he wanted to. In fact, if it were up to him, he’d have just run away, and possibly blamed the accident on someone else.

“You don’t know what it’s like trying to wrangle a bird,” Theta mumbled. “It’s really hard to keep them in line. One second she was just perched on my arm, and the next she’d flown away through the halls of the dormitory. There’s really nothing that I could have done about it.”

“Well, I mean, you could have just not taken her out of the room without a cage, like I told you?”

He frowned. “You know, sometimes it seems like things would go a lot more smoothly if I just listened to you,” he mused. “That said, I don’t think I’ll be changing my ways anytime soon.”

“I don’t even care anymore. Just go tell Valyes what happened.”

They had come to a stop several seconds before, when they reached his dorm room. Koschei shoved Theta forwards to the door, and even though he tried not to make noise, he slammed into it and alerted the people inside. He scrambled to step back before it swung open, not wanting to stand uncomfortably close to the person on the other side. He glanced back to look at Koschei for reassurance, but his friend had disappeared around the corner, probably to avoid getting his own beating.

Theta swallowed hard when the door slid open, his hearts threatening to pound out of his chest when he was met face-to-face with Valyes. His outward appearance wasn’t really threatening in the least, but Theta knew that he was going to have a change of heart as soon as he found out what happened, and he was terrified of making the explanation.

“Hey, Theta Sigma.” Valyes looked exhausted, his dark hair severely messed up, and dark rings forming beneath his eyes. “Sorry, this really isn’t a good time. Someone’s stolen my summer project.”

“Yeah, about that…” Theta rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, glancing down at the floor as his nerves took over. “See, I kind of know who’s responsible for that. And before you jump to any conclusions, it’s not me. Like seriously, I didn’t do anything. My snapping wart fowl, on the other hand—”

“Your bird ate my project?” The expression on his face went from tired to unreadable, and Theta knew that what was coming next couldn’t be good. “How did you— what did you— how?”

“I kind of lost track of her? And she flew all around the dormitory. But if you think about it, it’s really your fault, because you’re the one who left the door open, so…”

Valyes’ face fell, his eyes narrowing in rage. Theta’s own eyes went wide, and he took only one step back before he darted off down the hallway, praying that he would be able to run faster than his pursuer.

//

“You know, I’m beginning to think that you have no idea where you’re leading us.”

Mortimus rolled his eyes when Ushas complained for the umpteenth time that morning. She had expressed many times that she was unhappy with his leadership, and the fact that he had been chosen as a leader at all, but Mortimus had yet to get visibly bothered by what she said—even when it started to get on Rallon’s nerves.

“Obviously I know where I’m leading us,” said Mortimus, keeping one eye on the device in his hands. “All I have to do is read this thing. I’m not stupid.”

“And yet, one might think you were.” Ushas glanced over his shoulder, but he shielded the screen so she wouldn’t be able to see it. “Mortimus, seriously. You told us to turn left, and we got lost. Now, you had us turn right, and there’s no path. Where the hell do you think we’re going?”

“I think we’re going where we’re supposed to be going. Now shut up. You didn’t have to come here for extra credit, you chose to do that. You threw yourself at the mercy of the randomized names generators, and now you’re angry because you are second to me. Well, get used to it, bitch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Mortimus. This isn’t some law drama. Do you even know what you’re talking about right now? Because you sound like a fool.”

“Sorry, but could we not fight?” Rallon nearly stepped in between them but chose not to when he noticed the expression on Ushas’s face. “I know that you’re both really passionate about this, and whatever, but I’m not doing so hot in environmental studies right now, and if we don’t do this, I’m going to fail. Then I’ll have to spend all of next term repeating the course just because I didn’t study for two stupid tests.”

Ushas turned to look at Mortimus. “What were you just saying about choosing to do things?”

“I’m serious, Ushas. I really need to do well on this. Why don’t we just let Mortimus do his thing? I mean, he’s right, you know. He does know how to read.”

“That’s right.” He held up the screen and nodded towards it, as if that somehow proved that he did, in fact, know how to use it. Ushas wasn’t convinced but chose to sigh rather than speak. “Okay, so we’re all good then? You’re both going to let me lead, no more arguments?”

“Well, I suppose we don’t have much of a choice, do we, Rallon?” Ushas turned to look at him, though he didn’t agree to her comment right away.

He glanced between them, as if trying to decide who to remain loyal to, then finally took a breath. “You guys do whatever you want to,” he said, “and I will follow. Just please, please stay on task. I really can’t afford to fail this.”

Mortimus nodded. “Of course, we’ll stay on task. I really meant it when I said I knew what I was doing, Rallon. I mean, what could go wrong?”

Rallon was the only person who seemed to understand that the phrase was the ultimate jinx.

//

Magnus ran into Jelpax around an hour after they met up in the dining hall, this time by pure coincidence. Jelpax was working in the library, and Magnus just happened to walk in once he was already well-established in one of the couches—leaning back against the pillows with one leg swung over the armrest, a book in his hands. Instead of heading over to his usual study corner, Magnus walked over to the sitting area his friend was at and tapped him on the shoulder as he walked by.

At his touch, Jelpax nearly leapt out of his seat, dropping his book and falling back into the couch cushions as he jerked away as quickly as he could. Magnus snorted, then dropped his bag onto the table and sat down in one of the plush red chairs across from him.

“Hey, what the hell was that?” he snapped. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“No, I was trying to prove my point.” Magnus rolled his eyes, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his seat. “I know that I scared you, but that was a bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

“I do not.” Jelpax shook his head, and pushed himself back up into a standard position, readjusting his glasses as necessary. “There’s a difference between not enjoying physical touch and not enjoying being scared out of your wits. Which, by the way, entirely ruined my quiet reading time, so thank you for that.”

“Please, I improved it. You can’t have possibly been comfortable with the way you were sitting. You— what are you doing?”

“Getting comfortable.” He slid forwards, resting one foot on top of the coffee table and pulling the other one close beside him. “I figured I might as well get myself settled, since I’ll probably be here arguing with you for quite a bit.”

“How the hell is that comfortable?” For once, Magnus didn’t sound pissed off, just entirely bewildered. “Are you incapable of sitting like a normal person?”

Jelpax shrugged. “I sit how I want to sit. I don’t see a problem with it. And if you’re here to lecture me about even more of my personal choices, then I’d advise you just leave right now. I’m really not in the mood to fight with you about insignificant matters.”

“It’s not insignificant. It’s mind-boggling. I’m not trying to annoy you, Jel, I’m just trying to understand you. I mean, we’ve known each other for how long now? And still, I can’t make heads or tails of how you operate. You can’t sit straight, you act like you hate the all of us, and you allow an idiot to hang off of you and babble your ears off even though those are supposedly two of your least favorite things.”

“They’re my least favorite things when they come from people I don’t like. It matters much less to me when it comes from someone I care about more.”

Magnus narrowed his eyes, trying to understand what exactly Jelpax was explaining. Part of him thought that it was a lost cause, and that it was just some level of friendship and association that he would never understand due to his own antisocial personality, but his obsessive nature wanted him to learn more about why exactly Jelpax did what he did. So, instead of letting it go like a normal person, he decided to poke at the issue.

“Are you absolutely sure that it doesn’t bother you?” he went on. “At all?”

“Yes,” Jelpax answered, his tone clearly unamused. “But you know what does bother me? Your pestering. Instead of asking me why I do what I do, maybe you should be taking a closer look at yourself.”

“Oh, don’t get all Mortimus on me.” Magnus scoffed and gave him a look. “All right, listen. To be completely honest, I’m not doing this because I care about whether or not you’re comfortable. I’m doing this because it’s getting rather annoying that you give Drax passes all the time. You can’t treat him like he’s above the law just because he’s your best friend.”

“I don’t treat him like he’s above anything. I’m just more comfortable around him because I’ve known him the longest. It’s really nothing personal.”

“You’re limiting your focus to the touch thing. That’s not all that I’m talking about. You let him get away with the most ridiculous things, like his mood swings. You hate dealing with moody people, but for some reason, you let him use you as his support system. I’ve been thinking about this all day, but I just can’t wrap my head around the logic of that.”

Jelpax waited several seconds to respond, and Magnus couldn’t tell whether it was because he was trying to come up with a lie, or because he was genuinely considering his choices. Either way, Magnus was satisfied with the fact that he made Jelpax think, and he hoped that he was going to get a good answer when he finally spoke.

“Honestly,” he began, “my relationship with Drax is absolutely none of your business. And I know that this is going to bother you a lot, because you have some strange need to understand everything, but I don’t want to elaborate on this, all right? I’m perfectly happy with how things are right now, and it’s none of your business, so I don’t see why I should have to tell you anything. Therefore, I won’t, but thank you for your concern.”

With that, he grabbed his things and headed out of the library, leaving Magnus alone to ponder what he could have done wrong.

//

Theta slid into the stairwell as quietly as he could, hoping beyond anything that Valyes didn’t hear him closing the door, or his panting once he reached the other side. He didn’t know how long he’d been running from Valyes at that point, but he was terrified of being caught, and hoped beyond anything that his pursuer would eventually give up and leave him alone.

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs before he knew who was there, and he nearly leapt out of his shoes when they grabbed onto his shoulder. Theta screamed and nearly slid down the stairwell, his hearts pounding as he scrambled to regain his footing before Valyes could tear him apart.

“Theta, what the fuck?” Koschei grabbed onto his shoulders and pushed him back against the wall to help him regain his balance, then took a step back. “What happened back there?”

“What happened back there?” Theta repeated, his voice stunted by his shaking, panting breaths. “What happened right here? You just scared the living hell out of me, Kos! I thought Valyes got me!”

“Yeah, is he trying to kill you or something, mate? I saw you both tear off down the hall and I tried to catch up, but you were gone before I knew which way you went.”

“Obviously. I told him that Bumbley ate his project and his look turned so murderous that I just had to run. I was fucking terrified, Kos. I don’t even know what I’m going to do now. I’ll never be able to live a normal life again. I think I have to drop out of the Academy and go into hiding. There’s nothing else I can do. I’m doomed!”

“Well, did you try apologizing?” asked Koschei. “Because I doubt you’ll ever be proper friends, but you know that a little word can go a long way.”

Theta went silent for several seconds before he finally came up with an answer. “To be completely honest, I don’t remember if I apologized or not. I know I explained the situation, and that it was a mistake… and actually, I’m pretty sure that I blamed the whole thing on him once, but I don’t think it was that bad.”

“You don’t think it was that bad? Theta, you literally told him that he is responsible for the fact that you murdered his project and therefore his final grades. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking! You know me, I never know what to do. I just make it up as I go along. That’s why I’m an idiot.”

“At least you’re self-aware,” said Koschei. He glanced over his shoulder, then down the stairwell, to make sure that Valyes wasn’t approaching them from the front. Luckily, he was nowhere to be seen. “Okay, Theta, I still believe that you’re an idiot, but I’m really running out of ideas now, so you’re going to have to help me.”

“Okay,” he replied slowly, “but you should know that I’ve basically run out of steam at this point. I really have no ideas other than— run!”

Theta latched onto Koschei’s wrist and dragged him down the stairs just before Valyes burst through the door.

//

“…and then we just have to leave something behind. Or write a note. Or something. I forgot the pamphlet back at the starting point, but I think I remember the gist of it. That being said, I think that it’s probably a good idea for us to— Ushas, are you even listening to me right now?”

“Yes,” she said, as she crossed her arms and whipped her hair over her shoulders. “It’s just difficult for me to process so much stupid all at once.”

Mortimus stopped walking and whipped around to look at her, his own dark hair waving in the light breeze. “Hey!” he snapped, jabbing a finger in her direction. “You said that you weren’t going to question my leadership skills anymore. How am I supposed to get better if you won’t let me learn?”

“How am I supposed to get a good grade if you’re too stupid to do what we’re supposed to?” Ushas rolled her eyes. “Look, idiot, you were supposed to read the pamphlet. Now you have no idea how this thing works, which would explain why we’ve been walking in circles for the last… however long we’ve been out here for now.”

“Wow. You’re judging my skills, while you’re not even trying to keep track of the time? I don’t think you have any place to mock me for my teetering on brilliant abilities.”

Rallon stepped in between them before Ushas had the chance to open her mouth again. Her and Mortimus may have wanted to spend the entire day bickering, but Rallon was not about to throw away his last chance to pass his class just because of their petty fights. He looked back and forth between the two of them, hoping he didn’t sound too much like an annoying dad when he spoke.

“You two have got to stop bitching,” he said. He nearly stood up straighter to make himself appear more assertive, but then he remembered that he was already taller than the both of them and chose to cross his arms instead. “I know that you don’t like each other that much. And I know that you think you have to tell each other that. But please, for the love of god, can you just shut up? I need to pass this. If we don’t get evidence that I completed the task, I am going to fail, and then I’ll have to take this again. I’m already supposed to take fourteen classes next semester. I’ll never survive. So please, please for the love of all that is holy just let us finish this.”

Neither of them responded right away, and Rallon found himself tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for a response. Right before he demanded to hear something from them, Mortimus finally spoke up.

“Okay, let’s try this again,” he said, “and this time, try to forget about the fact that I once got a date lost here in the woods.”

“Wait, what?” Rallon’s face fell, his eyes widening in surprise.

Mortimus waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Oh, never mind. Let’s just get on with this, yeah?” He smiled. “Ushas, would you like to lead the way? Oh, wait! You can’t! I’m in charge today.”

There was not a muscle on Ushas’s body that was even a tiny bit amused by what he said, but she chose to say nothing even despite her annoyance. Rallon had a point, after all. If she continued being a jerk to Mortimus for the entire afternoon, they were never going to make it through the day, and all of them would lose the extra credit they had come there for.

Because of her skilled ability to shush herself, Ushas managed to keep herself silent as she followed Mortimus through the woods after that. She couldn’t help but notice that Rallon was some mixture of pissed off and tense but chose not to say anything about it because she figured it wouldn’t make a difference. Although Rallon was rather impressionable, it was difficult to get him to change his ways without a significant argument, which she didn’t have at the time.

Ushas knew about two seconds after they walked off of the path that they were lost but chose not to say anything. After all, Mortimus had claimed that he knew what he was doing, and therefore he didn’t need help. However, disregarding the fact that he had no idea how to read the GPS, he seemed to be choosing his path based on something in his own mind, which Ushas couldn’t identify. Her best guess was that he chose their path based on the prettiest trees, but she couldn’t tell for sure and she didn’t want to confront him as being that stupid.

She allowed Mortimus to get away with his horrible guidance for only fifteen minutes before she poked him in the shoulder, an aggressive expression on her face. He stopped walking and turned around to look at her, a single eyebrow raised.

“Do you have any idea where we’re going?” she asked.

Mortimus nodded. “Obviously. I’m reading it off of my little device here. What do you take me for?”

“I’d say I take you for an idiot, but then Rallon would probably shout at me again for being a jerk to you, even though it’s well deserved. So instead, I’ll say that I take you for who you are. Which is a person who has proven to be one of the most distracted individuals I have ever met in my entire life. When was the last time you ever stopped to do some self-care?”

He didn’t answer but glanced down at his hands when her gaze flickered down there, acknowledging his dirty fingertips. His eyes flickered left and right, as he contemplated what she said, then shook his head and look back up at her, a puzzled expression on his face.

“What does that have to do with my leadership skills?”

“A true leader keeps himself in shape. The team is only as good as the person leading them, and right now it looks like I’m much better in many more aspects.”

Mortimus opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it shut and narrowed his eyes. He took a step closer to Ushas, then held out the device in his hands, offering it to her. She took it quickly, looking up at him for an explanation.

“I suppose, since you’re so confident in your skills, you might as well get a try,” he said. Despite giving up his power, Mortimus didn’t look the least bit disappointed, but had a rather smug expression on his face. Whether he expected something to go wrong or to go right, Ushas didn’t know, but she refused to give in to his beliefs so soon. It was most likely that he was planning to trip her up, and she wasn’t going to be a part of it.

“Thank you,” she responded, glancing down at the screen in her hands. “Now, finally, we’ll be able to get somewhere.”

Rallon didn’t know if Ushas was going to be a better leader or not, but he was more than a little relieved that they were finally moving again.

//

“I don’t understand your natural ability to do this.”

Jelpax didn’t even glance in his direction. “I don’t understand your natural ability to speak through the entire game.”

“That’s the first thing I’ve said all afternoon.” Vansell paused the screen and dropped his controller, turning to look at Jelpax. He narrowed his eyes, preparing himself for the argument he was inevitably about to start. “Honestly, have you been practicing without me again? Because this is starting to seem less like talent and more like—”

The door swung open in the middle of his sentence, cutting off his train of thought. He half expected to see Drax walk in the room, considering he was the only person who was technically invited to be there at the moment, but instead, in walked Magnus. He had a determined expression on his face, but it was unclear as to what it was directed towards. Luckily for Vansell, he walked over to Jelpax, completely ignoring the other person in the room.

“You know what your biggest issue is?” he said, as if they were in the middle of an argument. Vansell scooted away a bit to keep himself out of the line of fire. “The amount of time that you sacrifice for him.”

“I don’t understand.” Jelpax frowned, narrowing his eyes in defense.

“Yeah, you do. Drax is an absolute lost cause, and for some reason you still spend hours every week trying to drill concepts into his head. It’s never going to work, you know.”

“Okay, three things. One, how is this any of your business? Two, why are you still poking at it? Three, it absolutely does work, and I have the papers to prove it.”

“Sorry but would either of you mind giving me some context to this?” said Vansell, raising a hand slightly. “It’s rather hard to enjoy the drama when I have to piece everything together from almost zero information.”

Jelpax rolled his eyes but spun around to look back at Vansell. “In a nutshell, Magnus seems to think I give Drax some sort of special treatment.”

“Well, I mean, you do.”

“What?” Somehow, he looked almost surprised by the reaction. “No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” On the contrary, Vansell couldn’t understand his confusion. He leaned forwards and crossed his arms. “We all know it; we just don’t care. Or, we didn’t.”

Magnus rolled his eyes, while Jelpax glanced back and forth between them, as if he were genuinely shocked by what he was hearing. He stood up from his seat in the bean bag chair and walked closer to the television, to see both of them at once, then held his hands up in defense.

“I do not give Drax special treatment.”

“Yes, you do,” Vansell argued. He wasn’t annoyed or frustrated in anyway, just stating a simple fact. “It’s not a big deal. We all know you care about him the most, so it’s not like we’re jealous or anything. It’s just— have you seriously never realized this before?”

Jelpax hesitated. Suddenly, what they said was starting to make sense. He hadn’t exactly consciously favored Drax, but he couldn’t say that it was entirely unintentional either. Of course, he couldn’t quite blame himself for the way their friendship worked, since it was Drax who had always relied on him, but there was truth to the fact that he gave up everything for his best friend. And, for some reason, he was okay with that.

“Oh, never mind,” Vansell went on, after deciding that Jelpax took way too long to respond. He turned to Magnus and waved a hand towards the door. “Shoo. We’re trying to practice. And Jel, sit back down. I need you to show me how you did that instant kill thing.”

//

“…so, you’re saying that it actually ate your project?”

Valyes nodded aggressively. “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”

The Headmaster placed a hand on his chin as he contemplated the situation. After hearing Valyes’ side of the story, he’d refused to let Theta elaborate on his own, betting on the fact that Theta’s troublesome reputation would prove his hypothesis correct. At least, that was Koschei’s own theory, and based on the look on his best friend’s face, he thought it was probably Theta’s too.

“Okay, so here’s what I’m going to do.” The Headmaster paused dramatically, looking between the three students with an intense expression on his face. “Valyes, unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to give Theta much of a punishment for this. Hey, quiet! He’ll be punished for losing track of his bird, but any damage that happened during the process is out of his control. And as for Koschei, you’re going to get detention for one-night next week, for running in the corridors.”

Koschei groaned. “Fair enough, I suppose.”

“And Theta, you’ll be in detention for a month, and you have to clean up all of the damage that your bird caused. The repairable damage, that is.”

“Also, fair enough,” Theta sighed. He dropped his head into his hands.

“Valyes,” the Headmaster went on, “you’re going to be in detention for one night, same reason as Koschei. In regard to your project, unfortunately there’s nothing that can be done. However, if it’s for a class, I’d be happy to speak to your professors and explain what happened.”

“No, it’s not for a class,” said Valyes. “I was just working on something during my free time.”

Theta’s jaw dropped and he spun to look at Koschei. “All of that fuss about him failing his class because of me, and it wasn’t even for anything! I never had to come clean in the first place!”

“I mean, it was still kind of the right thing to do,” Koschei mumbled.

“I literally do not give a shit about ‘the right thing to do’. What I care about is the fact that I could have avoided a month of detention that I’m now stuck in. Thanks, Kos. Thanks a lot.”

Koschei and Valyes watched him storm out of the room in silence, neither of them caring enough to stop him before he left.

//

“Okay, at this point, I’m about ninety-nine percent certain that this thing is broken.”

Mortimus smirked, while Rallon glanced around, hoping to find a cliff to fling himself off of. As it turned out, Ushas was not a remarkably better leader, and had in fact gotten them even more lost than they had been initially. She continually blamed the device and said that she totally knew which direction they were heading in, but Rallon doubted it, mostly because Mortimus kept turning to him and shaking his head.

“It’s fine, Ushas,” said Mortimus, “you just don’t know how to work it. Let me have it back and we’ll find the stash in a minute.”

She glared at him for several seconds before she handed it over. He smiled when she did so, then glanced down at the screen and tapped it a few times. In his unprofessional opinion, Rallon didn’t think it looked like he was doing much of anything, but the look on his face was more than confident, so he decided to just go along with it. After all, Mortimus was the one formally chosen to be leader.

“It’s been a minute and you haven’t even moved yet.” It was hard to tell whether Ushas was being sarcastic or not, and Rallon found it best not to question it. “Would you rather I take that thing back again?”

Mortimus shook his head. “No, thank you. I’ve got this perfectly under control. Follow me.”

Ushas rolled her eyes and scoffed before she followed, but Rallon went right away. He had to admit, he was mildly disappointed by the way that the day had turned out. He wasn’t expecting it to be remarkably fun, but it did sound like an interesting extra credit assignment, and he was hoping that it would at least be enjoyable to spend some time outside. Unfortunately, the bickering had ruined it, as he hadn’t even heard a single bird call all day.

Luckily and finally, they managed to make it a few minutes without Mortimus and Ushas arguing about anything. He was almost shocked that they were able to keep it up for so long—the arguing, that is—because even though they’d never gotten along that well, Rallon thought they were at least friends. Clearly, however, he’d been proven wrong.

During the silence that fell over the trio, Rallon was able to appreciate the beauty of the Gallifreyan flora, which was surprisingly diverse in its coloring. The fields beneath were red and orange, but the leaves of the trees were a shining silver; the flowers scattered around representing more colors than were in the rainbow, and—

Rallon didn’t get a chance to finish looking around before Ushas huffed loudly again, cutting off his train of thought. She poked Mortimus in the shoulder several times to catch his attention, until finally he turned to look at her, a sense of stress exuding through both his expression and his speaking tone.

“What do you want now, Ushas?” he asked, his voice filled with defeat.

“I just wanted to ask if you have any idea where we’re going?”

Mortimus opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut and shook his head. “Quite honestly, no. I lost track of where we were ages ago. In case you hadn’t noticed, this entire place looks the same. All of it. It’s just a bunch of trees and grass and otherwise identical plants. And I know we were both just being stuck up before, but now I’m thoroughly convinced that this thing is broken. I’ve been following it exactly for fifteen minutes and it hasn’t taken us anywhere.”

“Uh, I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Rallon, “but that’s probably because it’s upside down.”

“Oh. Well, shit.” Mortimus flipped the screen around, his eyes widening when he realized what he had done. “I guess this means we’re going to have to backtrack those last fifteen minutes. Either of you know which way north is?”

Ushas latched onto his shoulders and turned him to face the right direction. “That,” she snapped, “is north.”

“Thanks, but I’ve just realized that we’re supposed to be going south. Which way is that?”

“If you don’t know that, I can’t help you.”

Rallon could feel the situation devolving into another argument, and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to take it. They’d already lost so much time that it was nearing sunset, and he was beginning to think that they’d never make it back to the Academy at all, let alone finish the task they’d been sent to complete. So, in a sudden feat of courage, he stepped forwards and grabbed the GPS out of Mortimus’s hands.

“This way,” he said, “is south.”

Left without any other choice, Mortimus and Ushas followed Rallon back through the forest, hoping that he’d lead them in the right direction.

//

Despite Vansell’s prodding, Magnus did not leave Jelpax’s room right away, but stuck around to chill out with them while they played video games. It wasn’t that bad for a while, because they had a third controller and were just messing around, but eventually they passed him and Vansell’s arranged meeting time, and it started to drag. Not because it got any less fun, but because Vansell left due to another obligation, and Magnus just kind of stuck around. For no reason.

“Were you planning to leave anytime today?” asked Jelpax, immediately after they finished another round. “Not to be rude, because you’re not pissing me off at the moment, but it’s after detention so Drax is going to be here any minute, and I really doubt he wants to talk to you today.”

“Oh, well that’s not quite up to him, is it?” Magnus dropped his controller onto the floor beside him and leaned back in his seat. “I actually wanted to speak with him tonight, so I’ll just wait here until he shows up.”

“If this is even remotely related to thing we’ve been arguing about all day, then no. You won’t.”

“Actually, I will. Did you even recognize how much you flinched when Vansell punched you in the arm earlier? Even though it wasn’t even painful? Honestly, I don’t even care about you anymore, I just don’t like that you’re allowing Drax to get away with all this shit. Nobody deserves as much power as you let him have over you.”

“I don’t have any power over him,” Jelpax snapped. He narrowed his eyes, a dark expression making its way onto his face. “You don’t understand us and you’re never going to, so you might as well just go.”

Magnus stood up, and Jelpax followed him towards the door. “All right, I’ll just meet him outside. Look, if it really means so much to you, I won’t say anything about the tutoring, or whatever. We’ll just start with the touch and go from there.”

He reached for the handle but didn’t manage to touch it before Jelpax stepped in between and slapped his hand away. It wasn’t something that Magnus could have seen coming, and he was surprised by Jelpax’s sudden aggressiveness. Though he wasn’t afraid, Magnus took a step back, so as not to provoke him any further.

“Don’t you dare say anything to him.” Jelpax moved his hand away from the door handle and jabbed a finger in his direction.

“Jelpax, honestly,” Magnus began, “I know that I’m a jackass sometimes, but right now I really don’t understand what your problem is. Do you want to tell him yourself? Is that it? Or would you rather just phase it out, and stop giving him special treatment?”

“Stop it. I’ll acknowledge that I treat him differently, okay? But I have reasons for what I do, and quite frankly, it’s absolutely none of your business. So just stop. Don’t tell me what to do, because I’m not going to do it.”

“Why not?”

Something came over Jelpax in that moment, and instead of keeping quiet like he normally did, he snapped. Everything came flooding out and he couldn’t stop himself from selling all his secrets—even the ones that didn’t belong to him.

“Because he’s already insecure enough and I don’t want you telling him that what he does is wrong.” His voice was almost cracking, coming close to yelling in his rage. “I know him, Magnus, and I know how he would react to hearing that. I know you think it’s bullshit that I treat him differently, but you know what? He’s my best friend, and I’ve known him a hell of a lot longer than you lot, so yeah, I let him get away with things. I don’t care what he does. I don’t care if he touches me. Because, in the end, he means fucking everything to me and I wouldn’t risk that for anything.”

Magnus didn't respond right away. If there was any part of him that experienced some form of empathy, he probably would have reacted in a more sensitive way. As it was, he understood what Jelpax meant, but frankly did not give a shit, and therefore, was unsure of how to react. Emotions were far from his strong suit, and Jelpax appeared to be experiencing a lot of them at the moment, digging him into one of the deepest verbal holes he had ever found himself in.

All that being said, Magnus didn't question Jelpax’s devotion to Drax and the claims that he was insecure. Though Drax put himself out there as one of the loudest, cockiest prats in the Academy, he had some of the most fucked up mood swings that Magnus had ever encountered, and he didn't doubt that there was something more serious going on in his head than a fucked up emotional streak. As such, Magnus decided it would be best to approach the situation carefully and took his time to choose his words before he spoke.

“I'm not going to say I'm sorry for what I've said earlier,” he began, “because to be honest, I’m not. But I think I understand what you’re saying about Drax, so I won’t say anything to him. Just… make sure you don’t let him push you around, yeah?”

Jelpax nodded. “He’s never asked me to do anything I didn’t want to.”

And, finally, Magnus believed him.

//

Theta wasn’t expecting to see Valyes again after their meeting in the Headmaster’s office, so he just about leapt out of his shoes when the man popped up behind him in the dormitory corridor that evening. He tried to take a step back, mostly out of instinct, but Valyes grabbed his shirt to stop him from getting away.

“Don’t think this is over yet, Theta,” he sneered. Even as he clung onto Theta, his eyes narrowed in anger, he still wasn’t remarkably threatening. Still, Theta wanted to get away. “I’m going to get back at you for this someday. And don’t think we’ll ever work together again. If we ever cross paths again, I will do everything I can to take you down and ruin your life. Do you understand?”

“Uh, yes, yeah,” Theta choked out, as his collar yanked against his throat. “Please just let me go.”

Valyes dropped him, and he went clattering onto the floor before he scrambled back up to his feet, hurrying to take a few steps back to get distance from his attacker. Theta still wasn’t exactly scared of Valyes, but it was suddenly obvious which one of them was stronger, and he didn’t want to get pinned again.

“Now, stay out of my way.” Valyes tried to shove into Theta’s shoulder when he stomped by, an angry expression on his face.

Theta clutched his chest and stumbled back against the walls once he was gone. Although he felt that the threat was most likely empty, he still resented the fact that someone hated him. Oh, if only it was possible to go back in time and warn himself about the snapping wart fowl. Things might have turned out so differently had he just taken the cage like Koschei told him to.

//

“Holy shit, he’s done it.”

Ushas’s jaw dropped at the same that Mortimus’s dark eyes went wide. They had spent nearly the entire day wandering around the woods without the faintest idea where to go when they were under the leadership of Mortimus and Ushas, but after only half an hour with Rallon as their guide, they made it to their destination. At first, Mortimus wasn’t sure that it was true, but as soon as Rallon lifted the tiny wooden box hidden beneath a pile of leaves, he knew it was no lie.

Finally, after nearly nine hours of searching, they found the stash.

“I can’t believe that the idiot managed to outsmart the both of us,” said Ushas, a bewildered expression overtaking her tanned face. “I mean, seriously. This guy is smarter than us?”

“Hey,” Mortimus snapped, “he might be rather boring, but he’s not stupid. I mean, look at him! He’s actually saved our asses. We were totally going to fail this assignment, and he pulled it out for us.” He turned to look at Rallon. “How could we ever repay you? I mean, seriously, is there anything I can do? I know I’m not much, but I could, uh, I guess I could pull it out for you if you’d like.”

Rallon frowned, then stumbled backwards when he realized what Mortimus was referring to. “Uh, no. No, thank you. That is very, very, extremely not necessary. Let’s just leave our note in here and get back to the dorms, please.”

“Okay, hand over the stuff.” Rallon looked reluctant to listen and took another step back. “Come on. I hate to take the credit from you, but I was technically assigned to be the leader, and I really don’t want to be bending the rules. You have no idea how this might turn out if they find out we didn’t do things the way that they wanted us to.”

“I guess you’re right. Here, take it. Now write your names down on the pen pad inside and let’s go.”

He lifted the lid off the wooden box, then took a peek inside, his face falling as soon as he looked inside of it. There wasn’t just a list of names in there, to show proof of the people who had managed to find it, but small objects, gifts of some sort that were left behind for the next person to find.  He turned to look at Mortimus, a concerned look in his eyes.

“Were we supposed to have some kind of a trinket?” he asked. “Or did everyone else just leave these for fun?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” Mortimus glanced over his shoulder into the box and frowned. “I just kind of assumed we only needed the GPS. I stopped listening after Borusa gave me that.”

Ushas’s shoulders sagged. “So, we’re going to fail now, because we didn’t have this stupid trinket? Can’t we just mooch off the last guy and pretend we left that?”

“No, because we’re supposed to say what we left and what we took,” Rallon clarified, pointing down at the small notepad inside of the box. “See?”

“Well, shit. I guess this is the end of us, then.”

A grin crept its way up Mortimus’s cheeks. “Not necessarily…”

//

Drax didn’t get back to the dormitory until much later than he expected. It was his fault, of course, as he was the one who decided to be a loudmouth during detention and bought himself another hour, but he was still exhausted and vaguely pissed off about it. By the time he’d trudged all the way up to his own room, all he wanted to do was walk into the room and collapse onto his pillows.

He slid open the door when he got back, trying to not be too loud in case Jelpax had already gone to bed, but when he poked his head in, he realized he was still awake and reading at his desk. So, instead of flopping right into his bed, he groaned and turned to look at his friend. Jelpax looked back at him, one eyebrow raised in concern.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.” Drax raised one hand in a lame wave.

“Everything okay?” asked Jelpax.

He nodded. “I’m tired,” he answered quietly, before biting his lip.

Based on everything that he ever knew about his best friend, Drax would have expected Jelpax to ask him what he did to prolong his punishment, or what else he may have done after detention got out. Or, if not that, he would have asked something in regard to Drax getting himself into trouble and appropriately tiring himself out. However, what Jelpax ended up doing was neither of those things. What he did was so far out of left field that when he did it, Drax didn’t even quite know how to respond.

Instead of saying anything, Jelpax just stood up, walked over to where Drax was standing, and pulled him into an embrace.

Drax didn’t reciprocate immediately, trying desperately to understand where the hell the gesture had come from. After a few seconds, when Jelpax tightened his grip instead of pulling away, Drax lifted his own arms up and wrapped them around his waist, then gently rested his head on Jelpax’s shoulder.

Although it was far from an ordinary gesture coming from Jelpax, Drax thought that the embrace was one of the most comfortable places he’d ever been in. Held tightly in Jelpax’s warm grip, silently comforting him, and showering him with affection when he didn’t even realize that he’d needed the reassurance.

“What did I do this time?” he whispered eventually.

Part of him expected Jelpax to say that he’d forgotten something frightening on his desk again—a simple misstep that’s revealed more than one of his secrets—or that someone had come into the room looking for him, probably meant to beat him up or reprimand him for his poor grades. But he didn’t say either of those things, nor anything even slightly like them. Instead, he pulled back just enough to look Drax in the eyes, and said,

“I’m just really happy that you’re okay.”

And even though he wasn’t really sure what it meant, Drax wouldn’t have traded that hug for the world.

//

“…and he just let you get away with that?”

“Technically, we haven’t actually gotten our grades in yet,” said Ushas, “but yes, it would appear that we ‘just got away with it’. Honestly, I didn’t think that Mortimus was going to have a feasible solution, but once he’d cut up his sock into the shape of a bracelet, I was rather convinced. Although, it was rather smelly, which was not pleasant.”

“Hey, I offered a possible solution, not a pleasant one.” Mortimus glanced down at his hand and flashed his bright golden ring in the light. “Plus, I got this beautiful new right out of the box. It’s very obviously cheap metal, but it’s rather gorgeous all the same. What do you guys think?”

“Added to your hair today,” Magnus answered, “it’s probably the gayest you’ve ever looked.”

“Good. I’d like to think of it as somewhat of a guy magnet. Girls might not be into it, because it’s so shiny, but tomorrow I’ll have hordes of boys trying to go out with me. And possibly Dourgonn too.”

While Magnus rolled his eyes, Ushas simply turned back to the rest of the group, not interested in Mortimus’s silly schemes. “Anyway, does anyone else have anything to talk about? Theta and Koschei, perhaps? Because I feel like I need to mention the fact that someone’s snapping wart fowl pecked the hell out of my door while I was gone the other day.”

“So? How is that our problem?” asked Koschei, crossing his arms. “You don’t know that we have anything to do with that.”

“We kinda do,” Millennia mumbled. “I saw it pecking the door, and then Theta ran down the hallway chasing after it and screaming something about bumblebees.”

“Bumbley,” Theta corrected her. “I named my snapping wart fowl Bumbley. I thought it was cute.”

“Why would you give a snapping wart fowl a cute name?” Drax queried. He was, as per usual, sitting one seat behind Jelpax, with his desk pushed to the side and his feet propped up on the back of his chair. “They’re extraordinarily ugly.”

He gasped and clapped a hand over his mouth dramatically. “How dare you say that about Bumbley!”

Ushas settled into her seat behind Borusa’s desk just seconds before the two idiots got up in arms over their disagreements on what exactly constitutes as ‘cute’. While it was one of the stupidest arguments she had ever heard in her life, she had to admit that it was secretly one of her favorite parts of the meetings. Even though she pretended to hate her friends’ ridiculous shenanigans, she knew that her life would never be the same if she didn’t have a bit of that spice in there.

And, despite what she claimed, a small part of her was fine with that.

Chapter Text

“Wow,” said Ushas, her tone pleasantly surprised. It was the first time she had spoken since she welcomed her friends into their weekly meeting, as, for once, she did not feel the need to insert herself into every conversation. “I’d really like to commend you all on having such a lively discussion. I mean, even though it's on such a stupid topic, you lot are—”

Stupid?” Theta gaped. He jabbed a finger in her direction. “Don't you dare call our discussion stupid. Just because you're too sophisticated to engage in a lively debate about what constitutes as a good candy bar doesn't mean it's not a valid argument.”

“I never said that it wasn't valid, I just said that it's stupid.”

“Yeah, well maybe you’re the one who’s—”

Theta didn't get a chance to finish his thought before the classroom door opened. Luckily, it was not an intruder, nor a professor showing up to end their meeting prematurely, but Vansell—who was forty-five minutes late and didn't even bother to poke more than his head into the room.

“Hey,” he said, “I just figured I'd let you lot know that the Headmaster wants to take an updated group photo of us this afternoon. Boursa just told me, so. See you tonight, I guess.”

Ushas called after him, hoping to demand information, but ended up chasing him into the hallway when he ignored her shouting. The rest of the Deca just stayed in their seats, each of them in a state of utter shock and dismay.

It had been decades since they needed to pose together for a photo, and decades since so many of their afternoon plans been canceled all at once.

//

“I am not doing this.”

Koschei rolled his eyes as he kicked his shoes off onto the floor of their dorm room. Ever since they'd confirmed the validity of Vansell’s heads-up, Theta had been bitching about the fact that he didn't want to have his picture taken, and it was starting to get annoying. Even though Koschei wasn’t thrilled to be taking a stupid picture, at least he wasn’t wasting his time complaining about it.

“You’ve been saying that all day, Theta,” he groaned, “and you can keep saying it all you want. But the fact is, you’re literally looking for your comb right now, which means that you are actually planning to go.”

“I’m so not planning to go,” Theta argued. He dropped his comb into the rubbish bin seconds after finding it, his eyes narrowed as he turned around to look at Koschei. “I was just going to get rid of this to make sure that you couldn’t force me to look nice.”

“What? Theta, that’s ridiculous. You and I both know that you’re going to end up being in that photo one way or another, so you might as well look nice in it. Go get that comb.”

He crossed his arms. “No. I’m not going to comb my hair for some stupid picture that I don’t even want to be in.”

“Okay, newsflash: nobody cares whether you actually want to take the picture or not.” Koschei sat down at his desk and grabbed a pen to wave in Theta’s direction. “We’re not doing this because we thought it would be fun or whatever, we’re doing it because the Headmaster is quite literally forcing us to. So, don’t give me shit about not wanting to do it. We’re all going to do this, and there’s nothing we can do about it, yeah?”

“No.” Theta narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going.”

Koschei didn’t bother to stop him when he stormed out of the room, loudly slamming their door behind him.

//

“I’ve always wanted to do one of these!”

Millennia pushed aside the hanging garments in her closet, looking for the camisole that would go best with her uniform. Though it wouldn’t show much, if at all, she still wanted to make sure that she looked her absolute best for their upcoming group photo. In her opinion, the opportunity was quite exciting, and she was thrilled to get to do something so memorable with her closest friends.

“You’ve actually thought about this before?” Ushas scoffed and looked at her with a disgusted look, then shook her head and turned her attention back to the experiment that was laid out on her desk. “This is one of the most humiliating things we’ve ever had to do, and you’re literally looking forward to it.”

She frowned. “How is this humiliating? If anything, I think we should be honored that the Headmaster still looks at us as an academic group instead of an inconsiderate clique of troublemakers. And no matter what you think about it, we’re going to walk out of there with a photograph that we’ll be able to look back on forever. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

“No, not especially. I don’t see the point of taking a photograph when I already have to see you lot grouped together once a week. How’s it any better than seeing you all in person?”

“It’s not any better, and I didn’t say that it is.” Millennia tossed a light orange camisole onto her bed and turned to look at Ushas, one hand on her hip. “It’s not supposed to be superior to seeing us all in person, it’s just supposed to be a good memory for when we get older and whatnot. Plus, it would make a very nice screen saver, and I absolutely intend to use it for that purpose.”

“You’re literally going to put me on your laptop?”

“Of course, I am. You guys are my best friends. There’s nothing and nobody I’d rather have there.”

Ushas just sighed. “Well, don’t get your hopes up too high, Mil. I highly doubt that most of our friends are actually going to show up.”

And even though she knew that she was probably right, Millennia hoped beyond anything that they all would.

//

Drax spent nearly twenty minutes working his way through every drawer he owned before Jelpax finally decided to ask him what in the hell he was looking for. When he asked, he did so with much more affliction than he had intended to. His head was pounding from all the noise, and he was growing increasingly annoyed by the second, his already small patience shrinking even further when combined with his low tolerance.

“What the hell are you looking for?” he demanded, spinning around in his desk chair.

His roommate didn’t answer right away but finished look through the drawer he had open beneath the restroom sink. “Concealer,” he replied simply. “I thought that I had some in here somewhere, but I guess I either lost it or left it at home.”

“What?” Jelpax furrowed his brow. “Why would you have concealer, and what would you want it for right now?”

“What I have it for is none of your business,” said Drax, “and what I wanted it for was, well, the photo this afternoon. But you can’t tell anybody that. Promise?”

“Yeah, promise. But I do have a follow-up question, though. Why exactly do you need concealer for tonight? You look absolutely fine.”

“Well, it’s just—” He glanced into the mirror, then bit his lip and turned back to Jelpax. “I… kind of wanted to hide my freckles?”

Jelpax was so thrown off by the unexpected answer that he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “What? Why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged, his gaze downcast. “I just think they’re kind of silly-looking and I thought the picture might look better without them. Not that I really care about what I look like, of course, it’s just that I want it to look professional and usually they hide these kinds of… imperfections in professional photography.”

“It’s not an imperfection, Drax. It’s your face, and it’s perfect exactly the way that it is. Please don’t think otherwise.” Jelpax sighed when Drax didn’t respond and glanced at his own reflection in his computer screen. “I mean, at least you don’t look like me, yeah? I’m so pale I might not even show up in the photograph.”

The comment was supposed to be humorous; intended to make Drax laugh when he was very clearly feeling sensitive, but he didn’t smile. Instead, he crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame, his entire posture going soft.

“You’ll look beautiful,” he said, his tone nearly unreadable. “You always look beautiful.”

Jelpax chose to believe that the comment was directed at his naturally perfect hair and didn’t say anything back right away. He wasn’t bothered by the compliment, but he was unable to decide whether it was a strange comment or not. On the one hand, Drax—his best friend—had just complimented him as if he were a pretty woman, which was odd. On the other hand, Drax was known to make rather… friendly comments about his friends, and Jelpax in particular, who he’d once referred to as a “literal piece of art”. Because of that, Jelpax decided not to think too hard about it, and convinced himself to disregard the comment.

“Anyway,” he started, “please don’t use the concealer. If anything, you’ll just look very odd without your freckles.”

“Very odd or very hot?” Drax joked, leaning down to rummage through another drawer.

“Very odd. It’d be like if I had blond hair. Can you imagine me with blond hair? I’d look awful with blond hair.” His eyes went wide. “Not that you’d look awful without your freckles, just that you’d be, like, blander? I guess? Just don’t do it, please. I’ll never be able to look at the photograph if you do.”

“All right, you’ve convinced me.” He rolled his eyes as he walked over and flopped down onto his bed. “Just don’t be surprised if my freckles become the unintentional focal point.”

“It won’t distract from anything, you idiot.” Jelpax’s tone was entirely friendly, the last word meant to be anything but malicious. “Not in a bad way, at least.”

Drax sighed. “Anyway, who do you think is going to show up wearing something absolutely ridiculous?”

“Oh, it’s going to be Mortimus. Without a doubt.”

//

Meanwhile, in the room across the hall, Mortimus was shuffling through his closet. Unlike Millennia, he was not searching for something to wear underneath his uniform, but rather a uniform that wasn’t torn, stained, or otherwise inadequate for their photograph. Unfortunately, he’d already checked for pairs of robes, and so far, none of them were in pristine condition—a fact that upset him but didn’t surprise him in the least.

“Hey, do you have any robes I could borrow?” asked Mortimus. Although he was speaking to his roommate, his gaze was locked on another set of robes, which had a large tear on one of the sleeves. “I want to look nice for our photograph, but it doesn’t look like I have anything that’ll work. All of these robes are ruined.”

“And whose fault is that?” Magnus rolled his eyes. He was sitting at his own desk, halfway through some stupid homework assignment he didn’t want to do. “Unfortunately for you, I haven’t got anything to share. However, I think that if you look beneath all the shit on your floor, you might just find something else to wear.”

Mortimus looked down at his feet, which were standing in the middle of a whole bunch of random clutter, then turned back to Magnus and shrugged. Not only would his clothes stink if they were down there somewhere, but he didn’t have any motivation to try and search through his things at the moment, so he decided not to try it.

“I really don’t think there’s any clothes down there,” he said.

“Are you shitting me?” Magnus raised an eyebrow, waving a pencil in his direction. “There could literally be a person down there, and you’d be none the wiser.”

“On the contrary, if there was a person down there, they’d probably be screaming and therefore I’d know exactly what happened. Whether or not I’d actually be able to find them is another question. But then again, I guess it’s not really that deep , so I don’t think anyone could really get lost down there in the first place. Am I over-thinking this? Is there actually someone down there?”

“Yes, you’re over-thinking this, and no, there’s nobody down there. I made a stupid joke, you idiot. Why do you read into everything so much? It’s quite literally intolerable.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Mortimus rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the robes that were hanging in his closet. “All jokes aside, I’m actually very confused right now. I don’t understand why I can’t find a decent set of robes. I swear to god I had one, but I have no idea what happened to it. It’s not in my closet anywhere. Maybe I ruined it and I just forgot? I honestly don’t even know anymore.”

Magnus gave him a look. “You probably lost it somewhere in the rest of these piles of shit. I know we established you couldn’t lose a person down there, but I’m sure you could manage to lose a set of robes. I mean, you lost a toaster in there a few weeks ago, yeah?”

“You know, I never did find that toaster.” He put a hand on his chin and looked up thoughtfully, then shook himself off and looked back at his piles of trash. “Well, I guess I’d better get started on this. I really don’t want to, but we only have an hour until the photo, and I need something to wear. Hey, can you smell photographs?”

In response, Magnus grabbed his headphones and stuck them in his ears. If Mortimus was going to spend the next hour digging through his room, then Magnus was not interested in listening to it.

//

After Millennia had finally finished rummaging through her closet, she sat down to brush out her hair. She didn’t style it, because she didn’t feel the need to make it look particularly fancy for the photograph, but she made it look clean and smoothed out the ends, then pushed a simple blue headband on to hold her bangs back.

Once she was satisfied with the way that she looked, Millennia wandered over to her desk, and stopped to look at all the photographs and wall hangings that were littered around her side of the room. The mirror nearest her desk was covered in photos of her and her friends and family, while the walls all over had hangings of various things she liked and framed photographs from her favorite events. She paced around the room, looking for a spare space, but didn’t find one.

“Why are you looking at all of your things like you’ve never seen them before?” asked Ushas. She was sitting down at her own desk, still working on the same project she had started on earlier. “You do know that you picked out all of those things, yeah?”

“Yes.” Millennia laughed and nodded. “But technically I didn’t pick all of these. Some of them were gifts. Anyway, I was just looking for somewhere I might be able to hang up a copy of the photo we’re taking tonight. I thought it would be nice to have it on the wall.”

“Oh. Well, I can understand that. Although, you’re definitely going to have to take something down, because there’s literally nowhere left for you to put it.”

“I’ve noticed that, which is exactly why I was looking for something I might be able to move or take down. Surely there’s got to be something in here that I don’t need up there anymore.” She sighed and took another look around the room.

Ushas spun around and took her own look at Millennia’s wall, then pointed to a picture nearest her desk. “Why don’t you move that picture of you and Rallon? That’s rather old, isn’t it?”

“Well, uh, I guess I could, no.” She bit her lip, then shook her head gently. “I couldn’t move that one.”

“Why? Because you’re in love with him?”

“Ushas!” Millennia’s face turned bright red and she whipped around to look at her roommate. “No! I am not in love with Rallon. Where did you even get that from?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I got it from the fact that you’re literally in love with him. And don’t treat me like an idiot, Mil. I’ve seen the two of you together and believe me, he’s in love with you two. You’re practically a couple already.”

“Please. We’re just, uh, really close friends. Like Theta and Koschei. Just because they spend a lot of time together and whatever, doesn’t mean that they’re in love, and it doesn’t mean that Rallon and I are in love either. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Except that I do.” Ushas sighed and leaned forwards in her seat, her long brown ponytail flopping over her shoulder. “It’s not the same as it is with Theta and Koschei, Mil. I can’t explain it, exactly, but you and Rallon have this sort of… chemistry, and it makes you like, perfect together. And, I’m not sure how you’ve never noticed it, but the way he looks at you is like you’re an angel fallen from the sky. You can claim you don’t like him all you want, but he’s definitely got feelings for you.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Millennia walked over and took a seat on Ushas’s bed, so they’d be sitting closer together. “If Rallon had feelings for me then he would have asked me out by now, but he hasn’t, has he?”

“He hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you. You know him better than anyone, Mil. He’s the exact opposite of Drax. Whereas he lives in the world of ‘what the hells’, Rallon lives in the constant fear of ‘if I do this, what could go wrong?’ I’m telling you, he’s thought about it thousands of times, but he’s been putting it off because he doesn’t want to risk losing you if something happens.”

She didn’t respond right away. There was a small part of Millennia that believed Ushas was telling the truth, although she really didn’t want to think it was real. The idea that Rallon believed he could lose her, over something so simple as a crush, almost upset her. They’d known each other for so long, and they meant so much to each other, that she just couldn’t believe that he would ever fear losing her. She certainly wasn’t worried about losing him.

Or was she?

Suddenly, Millennia couldn’t think of a single good reason she’d never spoken to Rallon about the obvious feelings between them. It wasn’t like she’d never considered it before, but something always stopped her. She had a scheduling conflict, or she got sick, or Rallon showed up late and she ran out of time to tell him… There was never a good reason, but she put it off. Every single time. Was it so hard to believe that he was doing the same thing? Or that she might be afraid of losing him too?

“He’s not going to lose me,” Millennia said eventually, “and I really hope he knows that.”

She turned away from Ushas and looked back at the wall. There had to be something she could do to fit in the group photo, and she didn’t have to get rid of anything she loved to do it.

//

“Are you seriously just going to keep pretending that you’re not going? Because it’s starting to get rather annoying.”

Theta, who had his head stuffed into a pile of pillows on his bed, shouted something back from beneath his pile of fabric. However, Koschei was unable to understand him through the layers of cushions, which only irritated him even further. He was just about at the end of his rope with Theta by that point, as he’d been whining about the stupid group photo for what felt like hours, and it didn’t seem like he was planning to stop anytime soon.

“I seriously don’t care if you don’t want to go, Thete.” Koschei, who was working on homework on his own bed, didn’t even look over at him. “If I have to do this, then you have to do this too. And believe me, I don’t want to go there any more than you do. I’m just not being a baby about it, because you know that we’re both going to end up there somehow, so it really doesn’t matter what either of us want, does it?”

Again, Theta grumbled something back, but it was entirely unintelligible due to the pillows that were smothering his face. Koschei almost asked him to repeat it with his face up but decided not to bother. He knew that Theta didn’t say anything remarkably intelligent anyway, and was probably just bitching some more, so he wasn’t truly interested in hearing what he had to say. Instead, he dropped his pen and flopped down onto his own pillows.

If he was being completely honest, Koschei wasn’t thrilled about having to take a group photo either, but he really didn’t think it was worth bitching about. After all, there was nothing they could do to get out of the thing at that point, and he didn’t want to ruin it if any of their friends were actually looking forwards to it. As far as he knew, only Millennia was, but still. He could suck it up for ten minutes to make her happy, even if they had to deal with a dumbass photographer to do it.

“Do you think I can get out of this if I throw myself out the window?” asked Theta. He was still buried in his pillows but had flipped his head onto his side, so he was looking at Koschei. He’d most likely moved due to the fact that it was incredibly difficult to breathe in the position he was in, but Koschei still appreciated the fact that he’d spoken intelligibly this time around.

Koschei shook his head. “Unfortunately not, mate,” he answered. “All you’ll do then is ruin and/or delay the picture. But you heard what Ushas said after she interrogated Vansell this morning; the Headmaster’s made up his mind, and we’re not getting out of this for anything, so you might as well just suck it up. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can put it all behind us. Plus, I don’t understand why you’re so pissed about this anyway. Aren’t you all about friendship and stuff?”

“Well, yeah.” Theta rolled over onto his stomach and stared at the ceiling for a second before he turned his gaze back to Koschei. “But I really don’t like taking pictures. Especially with the stupid Academy photographer. I’ve never really told you about this before, but I think the guy has a thing against me. He’s always a horrible jackass when I go in to take my yearbook photos, and whatever.”

“No, he doesn’t have a thing against you. He just has a thing against all Prydonians. If I recall correctly, the bloke is an Arcalian who’s been pissed off since he was a kid because he always got second place to us, and—”

“Yeah, no, I know that. I’m talking about the fact that he always sabotages me right before I get to take my photos, so I always end up looking like an idiot. Like, last year he clapped a whole bunch of chalk on me, so when I got into the light, I quite literally looked like a ghost. I’m not even shitting you. Check in the yearbook if you like.”

Koschei frowned and propped himself up on his elbow, one eyebrow raised. “Wait, he literally has a thing against you?”

“Yes. This isn’t a joke.” He rolled his eyes. “Kos, look, the reason I don’t want to be in the picture is because he’s definitely going to pull something on me. Then I’ll look like an idiot, and then you’ll all look like idiots, and then our group photo will be ruined forever because I’m covered in fish guts.”

“Okay, that’s an oddly specific tactic to ruin you with, and I’m suddenly wondering what he’s done to you in the past.”

“You don’t even want to know, Koschei. You don’t even want to know.”

And, Koschei thought, as Theta flopped back onto his pillows, he did not.

//

“Drax, would you stop it? Your hair looks fine.” Despite how loudly he had spoken, Jelpax’s roommate did not respond, prompting him to try again. “I mean, seriously. It’s just a stupid photo. You’re taking longer to get ready than my sister.”

That made him turn around, a hairbrush still in his hands. “You don’t have a sister,” said Drax, a puzzled expression on his face.

“I know that. I was trying to see if you were actually listening to me or not. You’ve been ignoring me for quite a while now, and I was starting to get concerned about the fact that you seem more obsessed with your hair than the fact that you’re irritating your injured arm.”

Drax looked surprised when he said that, then glanced down at his right arm, which was wrapped in gauze. He pulled down the sleeve of his jacket but didn’t add a comment about it when he did so. Jelpax wasn’t going to let it go that easily, though.

“That was kind of an indirect question asking what happened,” he said, “but you know me well enough to understand that, yeah?”

“Yep. And you know me well enough to know that I was intentionally ignoring the question.”

Jelpax nodded. “Fair enough. Any chance you’re going to answer it anyway, though? Perhaps if I prod for a bit?”

“No.” Drax bit his lip and turned back to the restroom mirror to continue styling his hair. “It is an extremely stupid story and I’d really rather not recall it. But I will tell you that it looks worse than it is, which means you’re probably a lot more concerned than you actually need to be, so please stop. Everything is fine. Injuries are an occupational hazard. You’ve seen me fuck up enough to know that.”

“That’s also a fair point. But you’ve seen the nurse, yeah? Whatever it is, you better be okay.”

“I literally just said that I’m fine.”

“And yet you just dodged my question about whether you’ve seen the nurse.” Jelpax leaned forwards in his seat, trying to create a stronger presence, but Drax continued staring into the mirror, avoiding his gaze. “Drax, hey. Come on. I won’t make you tell me what happened, but you need to tell me that you’re definitely okay. Not like, your standard of okay, but absolutely medically sound.”

“Pax, stop.” He dropped his hairbrush loudly and turned to look at Jelpax, an annoyed expression on his face. “I am fucking fine. I haven’t gone to the nurse, but it’s not that bad. I just nicked myself while I was working on something the other day. It’s seriously no big deal. Now, just leave me alone so I can get ready for this thing.”

“I’d say ‘okay’, but unfortunately I can’t leave you alone until you tell me when you became so obsessed with looking good. What happened to the boy who used to spend a literal two minutes getting ready in the morning?”

“He spent two hours getting his hair cut and he’d like it to look nice in this group photo. Also, he’s going to have to stand next to the best-looking bloke in the Academy, so he has to at least try to be attractive. Not that he’ll be anything in comparison, of course, because his stupid best friend has the greatest hair in the universe.”

Jelpax rolled his eyes. “When will you stop talking about my fucking hair?” Despite what he said, he wore a slightly embarrassed grin on his face. “If you’re going to compliment me on something, you might as well talk about something that I can actually control.”

“It’s not meant to be a compliment,” said Drax, “I was saying it as a jealous comment. I would fucking die for your hair. I mean, it wouldn’t look good on me, but I would still die for it.”

“Now you’ve gone from nice to bordering on creepy. Please stop talking about my hair and go back to worrying about your own.”

“Fine, okay.” He grabbed the hairbrush off the counter and resumed brushing at his hair furiously. “But if your hair overshadows mine, it’s going to be on your head. Don’t say what you’re thinking.”

And so, even though he wanted to make a comment about the hair on their heads, Jelpax let it go. He needed to start getting ready anyway.

//

“Oh, my god. What am I going to do?”

Magnus didn’t even flinch when the forty-third water bottle smashed against the wall beside his desk. The first few had startled him quite a bit, but by the time they reached the twenties, they were no longer startling him at all. Mortimus just kept throwing them, and there seemed to be no end to it. While it annoyed him in the beginning, it eventually reached a point where Magnus was just glad that Mortimus wasn’t throwing over underpants or rotten fruit.

“That was my one good robe,” he whined. “My one and only good robe. And it’s gone! And I don’t even remember touching it! I specifically saved it for situations like this, and I just don’t understand how I could have lost it if I never touched it. And don’t say any of your bullshit about my trash eating up the robes because I know that can’t actually happen.”

“Well, bold of you to assume that.” Magnus spun around in his chair, an overly serious expression on his face. “There could quite literally be sinkholes in there. You don’t even know because it’s buried beneath so much shit that you’ve hit the bottom of it.”

Mortimus furrowed his brow. “If there was a sinkhole, wouldn’t it just go through to the next floor? We’re on a higher floor, aren’t we?” Suddenly, he looked almost confused, as if he couldn’t remember something so simple that he should have noticed every day. “We do live on the second floor, right? Or is this the third? At the very least, the lobby is beneath us, isn’t it?”

“Are you seriously so stupid that you can’t remember whether you take the stairs every fucking day?”

“I can’t remember whether I took a shower this morning.” He shrugged, as if it was no big deal, then bent down and grabbed another water bottle. He chucked it across the room and continued to push through the piles on his floor. “Didn’t I clean this up once? How did it get so disgusting again?”

“Nobody ever taught you how to put things away, I guess,” said Magnus. “At some point you’d think your fucking privileged parents would at least try to introduce you to the real world, but I guess it’s rather difficult since they don’t live in it.”

“Hey, don’t be a jerk about my parents.” Mortimus glared at him, then grabbed yet another empty water bottle and chucked it at his head. Magnus ducked just in time to avoid being hit. “You sure seem to assume a lot considering you seriously don’t know shit about me.”

“Mortimus, I know literally everything about your entire life. You come in here and tell it to me at the end of every day. I don’t even have a choice in the matter.”

“I tell you things that are currently happening, not things that have already finished. Dickhead.” He added the last word as an afterthought, as if he hadn’t been intending to throw in an insult. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have some digging to do.”

The longest second passed while Magnus tried to decide what to do. It seemed like it should have been an easy answer, and yet somehow, he couldn’t decide what he wanted to do. To be an asshole and stick to his true nature, or to follow his gut and do the thing that was morally correct? Of course, Magnus didn’t much care about right or wrong, so he ended up making his decision based on the fact that Mortimus was annoying him to hell and gone.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” He sighed and slid forwards in his seat. “You don’t have a good robe in there anywhere, Mortimus. You’re on a fucking wild goose chase.”

Mortimus dropped a stained jacket onto the piles of trash and turned to look at him. “What are you talking about?”

“Your last good robes are the ones with the tears in the sleeves. You walked into a door frame last month, snagged on a splinter, and ruined it on the way back from that psych presentation you did. I was going to tell you earlier, but then you started going crazy looking for it and it was funnier not to. Well, until you got annoying, that is.”

“For your information, I’m always annoying, and I’m rather offended that you might believe otherwise. Also, how dare you let me go on a hunt for something that doesn’t exist! I’ve just wasted my entire afternoon when I could have been making sure my hair looks nice. I mean, look at it, for god’s sake! I’m going to look like an absolute slob next to Jelpax. Ugh.”

Magnus opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut again when he realized that he had nothing to say. He’d had enough of Mortimus for the afternoon, and he didn’t want to talk to him again unless he absolutely had to.

//

“Are you sure that this is really necessary?”

“Yes.” Koschei kept his grip tight around Theta’s wrist, dragging him down the hallway behind him. He knew that his plan was probably going to backfire somehow, but he figured it was at least worth a shot, so he forced his best friend to come along with him to speak with the photographer. “If we just take care of this now, there won’t be any risks going into the actual photo in a bit.”

“I think you’re underestimating this guy, Kos.” Theta had finally quit trying to break free, but he was still looking rather pissed off about what was happening. “He’s going to destroy us if we do this. You think you’ll save the day, but in the end, he’s just going to hate you too. Seriously. He’ll—oh, shit. There he is.”

They came to a halt outside of the room, Theta swallowing hard when his eyes landed on the long-haired scumbag standing at the front of it. His white hair was greasy, his artificially tanned skin glistening beneath the lights. Part of Theta wanted to turn around and run as soon as he laid eyes on his matted beard, but Koschei kept one hand around his wrist, preventing him from running off.

“Hey!” Koschei smiled, waving his free hand at the photographer. “How’s it going, mate?”

Grwtrelli turned around slowly, one eyebrow raised over his crescent-moon glasses. Koschei hadn’t been afraid of him before, but suddenly he found himself shaking in the presence of the unkempt man. His expression turned almost twisted when he laid eyes on Theta, somehow almost completely ignoring Koschei’s entire existence. Though he’d been doubtful before, Koschei was certain that something had happened between Theta and Grwtrelli, but he had no idea what it might have been.

Theta narrowed his eyes and yanked away from Koschei to cross his arms. “Grwtrelli,” he sneered. His entire fear-filled persona was gone, replaced by nothing but a subtle rage.

“Theta Sigma,” Grwtrelli replied, his own eyes nearly closed from how hard he was glaring.

Koschei waited for something to happen, expecting one of them to lash out, but they just continued to stand there—both glaring with their arms crossed against their chests. So, instead of continuing to wait, Koschei took a step forwards so that he was almost in between them, but not blocking either of their sights. He wanted to intervene, but he wasn’t planning to get punched anytime soon.

“You know, I’m here too,” he said, glancing back and forth between them. “And if it’s possible, I’d like to resolve this stupid feud as quickly as we can, because the others are going to be here in about fifteen minutes and I’d rather you not still be glaring at each other when they get here.”

“Right.” Theta didn’t budge. “Except, I’m probably going to be covered in feathers and tar before they do, since this guy is determined to make a fool of me in every picture I’ve ever been or will be in.”

“Hah!” Grwtrelli scoffed and threw his hands up in the air dramatically. “He says that as if I am somehow responsible for the unfortunate happenings of have occurred.”

“Wait, you’re not?” Koschei raised an eyebrow, again glancing between them as if he didn’t even know where to look. “Okay, would someone mind explaining to me what exactly happened then? Because I was under the impression that you’ve been out to ruin my best friend’s life for absolutely no good reason. Although, I realize now that that’s kind of a ridiculous claim.”

“Yeah, well I’m kind of a ridiculous person,” said Theta. “But you should really trust my word over his, don’t you think?”

“Is it fair to say that I don’t quite trust either of you?”

Theta looked over to Grwtrelli, and they both nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. Though, I am your best friend, so you kind of have an obligation to listen to me, even if it sounds like I’m making shit up.”

“I don’t have an obligation to do anything.” Koschei frowned. “And again, we don’t seem like we’re getting much of anywhere with this, so would you guys just promise not to mess anything up for the photo? I’d really rather we not ruin this for those who actually care about it. So, could you just, like, shake hands or something? You know, as a promise that you won’t be jerks to each other, at least for today?”

“Fine.”

Grwtrelli looked reluctant to move, and stayed in his spot as Theta walked over, one hand extended. The photographer reluctantly accepted his hand and leaned in to whisper something in his ear when they shook on it, his voice dripping with venom.

“I promise nothing,” he said.

“Neither do I,” Theta responded smugly.

They pulled apart after that, and Theta wandered back over to where Koschei was standing, one eye on Grwtrelli at all times. At that point, it was no longer a matter of whether something bad would happen, but the question of who might strike first. Luckily, neither of them did anything right away, giving Koschei at least a few more minutes of silence.

“So,” he began, “seriously. What started this whole thing?”

“Well, this is going to sound crazy,” Theta answered, “but the story is about a pair of pants. It all started when…”

//

“No! Just— what are you even doing?”

Jelpax swatted away Drax’s hand for the umpteenth time, consequently knocking the comb right out of his hand. Ever since he’d stood up from his desk, Drax had been trying to tidy up Jelpax’s hair, insisting that he needed to move his curls into the “perfect positions”. However, Jelpax was not the least bit interested in having anything dragged through his hair and was doing his damnedest to get his roommate to go away.

“I’m just trying to make sure that you look good,” he answered. Drax leaned down to pick up his comb, then flopped back onto his bed dramatically. “Is it such a crime to care about how my best friend looks?”

“Well, yeah,” said Jelpax, “because you’re not supposed to care. I don’t even care. This is literally none of your business. And now my hair is all fucked up!”

He pushed a hand through his hair as he stared at it in the mirror, as half of it was looking far more tangled than curled. Normally he didn’t care too much about his appearance, nor was he planning to get dressed up in the least for the group photo, but he didn’t want to look like an idiot either. And yet, there he stood, his hair looking far more like a nest than a mop of curls.

“Oh well.” Drax shrugged, not seeming too bothered by the fact that Jelpax was very unhappy with his appearance. “I guess you’ll just have to live in the real world for a bit, having terrible, unmanageable hair just like the rest of us regular blokes do.”

“What? You—oh, my god!” Jelpax clapped a hand over his mouth and whipped around to look at Drax, who was simply grinning at him from the bed. Slowly, Jelpax lowered his hand and pointed a finger in his roommate’s direction. “I can’t believe you actually did this. You sabotaged my hair so that you would be better looking than me?”

“Well, well, well, you figured it out. I can’t say I’m surprised, although it did take you longer than I thought to catch onto it.” Despite the fact that they were supposedly best friends for life, Drax did not appear to be the least bit remorseful for his evil actions. “Now, though, at least we can all look like idiots in the photograph, yeah?”

“All of us? You mean just me? Because I’m fairly certain everyone else is going to come looking just as normal as ever, and we’re going to be standing off to the side looking like absolute nimwits.”

“Nimwits or not, at least our hair is on the same level. Kind of.” He grimaced. “Yours looks really bad, actually. You might want to run a comb through that.”

Jelpax’s face fell even further. “You running a comb through it is the exact thing that ruined it in the first place, you dumbass.”

“It’s still worth another shot though, isn’t it?”

Needless to say, it was not worth another shot, and he did not accomplish anything by throwing the comb at Drax’s face.

//

As per usual, Ushas was the only person to leave the dormitory on time; Millennia following behind her only because she’d been nagged until she finally agreed to go. They stepped out into the hallway at the exact right time and lingered for a few minutes when Ushas decided that she wanted to see if anyone else was going on time. Of course, they weren’t, and her and Millennia ended up standing outside their dorm like a couple of idiots until she finally declared that it was time to just go.

Because it was after classes and before dinner, there weren’t a lot of students in the Academy halls, but there were a few stragglers here and there. Most of them ignored Ushas as she walked by, but several of them waved to Millennia, prompting her roommate to ask how the hell she knew that many people. Millennia didn’t answer the question.

When they arrived at the photo room, Ushas was momentarily pleased to see that some of their friends had arrived on time. Or rather, she was pleased to hear that they had arrived on time. The door was closed, but she could hear Theta and Koschei talking about something on the other side of it, telling her that they had, in fact, made it to the event before it was intended to begin—a surprisingly rare occurrence. However, her face fell the moment that she pushed open the door and realized that they weren’t having a civilized discussion before the photo was taken. No, it was much worse than that.

“How the hell was I supposed to know this was going to happen?” Koschei shouted, throwing his hands in the air dramatically. He jabbed a finger in Theta’s direction. “You are the one who started this whole bullshit battle in the first place, and over a pair of pants? Who the fuck fights with a photographer over a pair of pants?”

“I fight with a photographer over a pair of pants!” Theta retaliated. It was probably the absolute worst comeback he could have come up with, but he either didn’t realize or didn’t care. “And it would have been fine until you decided to get involved!”

Even though they were arguing over something involving a pair of pants, there appeared to be none in sight. In fact, the only noticeable thing about them was the fact that they were both covered in some kind of liquid. It was hard to tell exactly what it was, but it very clearly turned Theta’s hair a pale shade of purple, and Koschei’s cheeks dark pink. Ushas took a deep breath when she saw them, then pushed her way in between them.

“What the hell, you idiots?” she snapped. She slapped them both over the head, then winced and glanced down at her sticky hands before turning back to look at them. “You two need to go get cleaned up right now or you’re going to ruin our group photo.”

“Yeah, seriously, guys.” Millennia stepped up beside Ushas, her arms crossed. “I don’t agree that you’re idiots, but this photograph means a lot to me and I’d rather you not be wet and purple during it.”

Koschei rolled his eyes. “We’re not even that purple,” he said, “and it’s all Theta’s fault. He’s apparently had some kind of ongoing feud with this stupid photographer guy.”

“Hey!” Grwtrelli’s sniveling voice piped up from the other side of the room. He stood up from his seat on the stool beside his camera, then stomped over to where the four students were standing and glared at the all of them. “Watch who you’re calling stupid, stupid.”

“Is that literally the best comeback you can think of?” said Ushas. “You seriously are both idiots. It’s not that hard to come up with a decent retort.”

“Can we focus on the actual issues at hand?” asked Millennia. She glanced between them all, trying to figure out which one of them was the most likely to agree with her. Unfortunately, none of them looked particularly ready to change their stance, so she had to go with her gut and turned to look at Ushas. “There is no point yelling at them for what’s already happened. The best thing to do now is to get cleaned up and move on. The others are going to be here any minute.”

Ushas opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind and sighed dramatically. “Okay, Theta, Koschei, go put on some dry robes. And Grwtrelli, for god’s sake, act like an adult.”

“Fine,” Grwtrelli grumbled, “but for the record, they started it.”

“I do not give a shit who started it. Just do your fucking job and let these two idiots get changed so we can do this.”

Theta and Koschei didn’t say anything before they wandered out of the room, both whispering to each other as they squished away to get themselves cleaned up. Just after they left the room, Magnus and Mortimus walked in, bickering about something that again, Ushas was not at all in the mood to listen to. She glared at them when they walked in, but unfortunately, they weren’t paying attention. During her staring, however, she realized that something was very off about the image she was looking at; Mortimus’s sleeve was torn.

“Mortimus, why are you not wearing your best robes?” she snapped. She rushed over to him and inspected the gash in his clothing, hoping that there would be some way to hide it, but there wasn’t. “Oh, god.”

“These are my best robes,” Mortimus argued. His tone was entirely innocent, even though he was quite obviously not wearing his prime uniform. “I just tore them by mistake. It’s really no big deal. You probably won’t even be able to see it in the picture.”

“You will definitely be able to see it in the picture. The entire lining of your sleeve is poking out, and its literally bright white. How could you possibly think that’s not going to be seen?”

“I don’t know. I’m not that smart. It doesn’t matter anyway. Who’s even going to look at it?”

“Millennia is going to look at it!” She gestured to her roommate, who was sitting down on one of the photographer’s stools with her head dropped into her hands, shaking it slowly as she tried to come to terms with whatever was happening. “Okay, Mortimus, you’re just going to have to stand in the back. If we put someone in front of your right arm, then I think we have at least a chance of covering it. Magnus?”

He looked up from the place on the wall he’d chosen to lean against. “If you’re about to suggest that I stand beside him,” he said, “then you’re making a big mistake. I’m not going within two feet of that idiot until the end of the day. I’ve seriously had enough of him to last me a lifetime.”

“And yet you were the one who didn’t try to stop arguing with me the whole way here,” Mortimus began, “so I wonder what that means, hm?”

“It means literally nothing, you idiot. You’re the one who started it. I just have some ridiculous inability to keep myself from fighting back.”

“Wow, that’s the understatement of the century.”

The voice that spoke did not come from Grwtrelli, nor any of the students that were already in the room. Instead, it came from Drax, who was just walking in the door with one arm slung around Jelpax’s shoulders. His forest green eyes looked mildly amused, while the rest of his posture was far too relaxed considering the fact that both he and Jelpax had the worst looking hair that Ushas had ever seen in her entire life. She bit her lip to keep from gasping when they walked into the room.

“Okay, has there been some kind of group effort to ruin this photo?” she hissed, her voice going all high and squeaky. “Because it’s not funny! I know that you all think it’s fucking hilarious to break the rules, but some of us just wanted to get this over with and be done with it. Why do you have to ruin fucking everything?”

Drax shrugged. “This definitely isn’t a group effort, for the record, but I find it rather funny that you’re so pissed off about this. What else has been happening? Did someone throw mud around the room and I missed it? Also, what is that fruity smell?”

“That’s a fizzy soda drink,” said Grwtrelli. He had gone back into his corner and was adjusting the lighting in the scene. “I’ve started buying it in bulk to ruin this magical day for students I don’t get along with.”

Ushas whipped around to glare at him before she turned her attention back to the two idiots who wandered in the door. She could hardly believe that their hair was so disgustingly messy, especially on a day such as that. She’d never seen Jelpax with anything less than perfect curls, and yet, his tangles were even worse than Drax’s own bed-head disaster.

“What the hell did you guys do to your hair?” she demanded. “You both look like you’ve never seen a brush in your life!”

“It’s a bit of a long story,” said Drax, “but basically, I decided to fuck up Jelpax’s hair so that I would have the best hair in the photograph, but unfortunately, it turns out I have a conscience. So, then I felt really, really bad, and I decided to fuck up my own hair too.”

“After,” Jelpax added, “he spent several minutes attempting to fix what he’d done. Which didn’t work, obviously, because my natural curls won’t go back into place until after I wash it. And maybe not even then. So, for the foreseeable future, I am now stuck with these horrible tangles instead of the glorious treasure that everyone’s come to know and love.”

“Know and love?” Ushas scoffed. “Nobody gives a shit about your hair.”

“Now, that’s just not true.” Drax narrowed his eyes. “Everybody on the planet loves Jelpax’s hair.”

“And yet I don’t. Huh. What do you think that means?”

Right as they got into what would have been a long staring contest, Rallon squeezed by into the room, Vansell trailing behind him. He made a face when he noticed Drax and Jelpax’s hair.

“Brush much?” he said.

In response, Drax did nothing but raise the middle finger that was wrapped around Jelpax’s shoulders.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Millennia smiled when Rallon walked up beside her. She waved, and he grinned back before coming to a halt right beside the stool she was sitting on. Part of him wanted to just have a casual conversation with her, while the romantic side felt like he was about to melt. Millennia had a headband on, which held her hair back in the prettiest way possible. She was also wearing just enough makeup to look like a princess.

“Wow,” he said, unable to keep himself from speaking. “You look really gorgeous. I mean, uh, nice outfit. Hair? Is there anything else I can compliment you on that won’t make me sound like a perv?”

Millennia laughed and placed a hand on his chest. Her touch left tingles everywhere she moved, and he found himself unable to breathe. Whether that was because she was somehow magically sending shivers into his lungs, he didn’t know, but he suspected that she put at least some kind of spell on him.

“I don’t think you sound like a perv,” she joked. “You’re just a really nice friend who’s very, very bad at compliments. But I’ll forgive you for that, obviously. I think that it’s part of your charm.”

“Charm?” he stuttered, his eyes widening. “I have charm?”

“Of course, you have charm, you dork.” Millennia didn’t seem to notice when Rallon’s cheeks turned bright red. “That’s what we all love about you.”

“You have things that you love about me?”

“No, I spend time around you because I enjoy using people I don’t like. Obviously, there are things I love about you, Rallon. You’re a really wonderful person.”

Although Rallon wanted to say something back, to say something to her that was equally as kind as she had said to him, he didn’t. He took too long to respond, and before he knew it, Ushas was hauling people around the room like a General (including Drax and Jelpax, who were attempting to fix their hair with brushes that had come out of nowhere).

“Okay,” she shouted, “Theta and Koschei are back now which means you need to fucking move. Everyone in their spots. Tall assholes in the back, short assholes in the front, but don’t stand in front of anyone unless you truly have to. I think we can all wedge in with some twisting. Vansell is excluded from that, of course, because he’s going to be standing in front of Mortimus to cover up his horrible uniform.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The remark was intended to be sarcastic, but Ushas did not appear to read it that way.

“Grwtrelli, I know you don’t like these two idiots—” she pointed her thumb in Theta and Koschei’s direction “—but I swear to god, if you fuck this up, I will have your head.”

Somehow, the photographer actually looked frightened. He nodded, his breath shaking slightly as he hustled to get back behind the camera. Meanwhile, Ushas made sure that everyone was exactly where she wanted them—whether standing, on a stool, or positioning himself to block the entire outside of Mortimus’s right arm. Once she was satisfied with the way they were positioned, Ushas slid into the spot in the middle, and gave Grwtrelli a horribly threatening look.

“Take the photo. And everyone, you’d better fucking smile.”

They all put on their best faces just seconds before he clicked the button, and as quickly as the chaos had started, it was done.

//

Admittedly, Millennia spent far too long trying to find the best place to display their group photo. It wasn’t technically any more special than the other pictures on her wall, but it was one of the only ones she had with all of them in it. In fact, she was pretty sure it was the only one with all of them. She had others with most of them, or some of them, or just one or two, but not a whole Deca photo. Not until then.

So, it wasn’t totally unreasonable that she wanted somewhere special to put it, but it was a bit unpractical. She had a lot of pictures on her wall already, and she didn’t want to overcrowd it or move any of her other things to places where she wouldn’t be able to see them. Which was why she spent most of the afternoon the day of the photo, and much of the afternoon the day after, trying to find the best place to hang it on her wall. Because there had to be something she could move. Somewhere.

But, no matter how hard she looked, there was nothing there. No good place to put it, or to move anything else to. There was absolutely nowhere on her wall left to put the beautiful photograph.

Which was why she didn’t put it on her wall.

Even though the memories attached to the group photo weren’t all good, she wanted to remember them forever. Theta and Koschei drenched in fizzy fruit soda; Jelpax and Drax with their horrible hair that barely got tamed in time; and even Mortimus with his messed-up robes. More than that, she wanted to have the photograph of the days when they were young, and most everything was easy. Because, even though nothing seemed to be changing anytime soon, she knew that it would eventually. And when that happened, she wanted those memories to look back on. To remember when everything was so great.

And maybe, someday she would be able to show the photograph to her children and tell them that it was her and their daddy’s friends from when they were at the Academy.

Not that she thought she might marry anyone in the Deca, of course, though she did obviously have someone in mind. Someone who, though she had trouble admitting to it, she couldn’t imagine living without. Someone who brightened her day every time she saw him. Someone who, no matter what other photographs she got, would never lose that perfect place beside her desk.

“Hey.”

Millennia turned around to look at Ushas when she walked into the room. She closed the door quietly behind her, then walked up to her roommate, one eyebrow raised in curiosity.

“Did you find a place to put that photo yet?”

Finally, after saying “no” over and over, Millennia was able to smile and nod. Because she had found a place. There wasn’t anywhere good enough on the wall. Nowhere that would highlight their friendship well enough. And her desk didn’t have enough space for another photograph, nor did the mirror she kept upon it. But there was still one more place for her to put her picture. One more place left for her to not hang a picture, but to place it where it would always be seen.

“I thought it might look nice on my nightstand.”

And it did.

Chapter Text

What in the fucking shit have you done?!

Ushas winced when Drax screamed, her head still dropped into her hands. She knew that she was going to have to face her horrible mistake, but it was too late. There was no going back from it—she’d already ruined him, possibly forever. Though the last thing she wanted to do was look up, she forced herself to do so when Drax finally opened the restroom door.

When he walked out, he was wearing nothing but dark purple pajama pants, his top half entirely bare except for the gauze wrapped tightly around his forearms. On any normal day, Ushas would have taken notice of his far too pronounced ribs, but on that day, she was too distracted to even think about it. She couldn’t even believe what she’d done. She couldn’t even believe she had messed up so badly.

“I’m fucking blue,” Drax spat. He gestured down towards his body, which was practically glistening with an overtone of blue everywhere he wasn’t covered. His hair in particular was nearly neon blue, sticking out against the frosty accents on his already pale skin. “What the fuck am I going to do?”

“It’s really not that bad,” said Ushas quickly. She didn’t even know if she was lying or not, nor if she was trying to reassure him or herself. “It’s a light coating at best. Well, your hair is a disaster, but your skin is hardly even blue. It’s like a haze, really. You can barely even tell.”

“Yeah, fuck you. I literally just looked in the mirror.” He looked down at his pale blue hands and groaned. “God fucking dammit. Are you sure you don’t know how to fix this?”

She shook her head awkwardly and leaned one elbow against his desk. “I can do it; I’ll just need a couple of days.”

“A couple of days? Fuck, Ushas. Do you even know what people are going to think when they see me?”

“So? It’s not like you’re looking for new friends or a girlfriend, or that you’ve ever given a damn what people think about you before.”

“Just because I don’t want a girlfriend doesn’t mean I want people to look at me like a fucking freak.”

“Finally, verbal confirmation that you actively don’t want a girlfriend. Are we ever going to hear more about this topic?” In response, Drax gave her a look of death. “Okay, all right, I get it. Just one more question: are you physically capable of speaking without dropping f-bombs right now?”

“No. I’m not fucking capable of that. I am fucking blue, Ushas, and I don’t think you have any place to be mocking my speech right now.”

“Okay, all right, I’m sorry.” Normally, Ushas wouldn’t have even considered apologizing, but that day was an exception. She’d really made a mistake. “Can you just go put on a shirt? Your ribs are freaking me out.”

“You are in no fucking place to be pointing that out either,” he snapped.

Despite his bitching, Drax did as he was asked and turned into his closet to grab a jacket, leaving Ushas a few seconds to contemplate the horrible thing she had done.

//

“Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

The closer Professor Camaid got, the Theta wanted to fade out of existence. She was currently collecting the students’ term papers, walking up and down the aisle, grabbing the papers like nobody’s business. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, and Theta would just hand over his project as per usual, but that day was an exception. That day, she was collecting an assignment that he hadn’t remembered to do.

“Theta Sigma.” He snapped his head up when she spoke, his eyes wide and his hands gripping into tight fists nervously. “Where is your assignment?”

“It’s, uh…” Theta glanced over his shoulders, looking around for some sort of reassurance, but there was nothing. Koschei wasn’t in the same class as him, and there was no one else in there who’d be willing to help. Not that he was completely devoid of Deca members, but Mortimus was not remarkably quick on his feet. “Pig-rats ate it.”

It was quite possibly the worst excuse he could have come up with. On any other day, Theta would have retracted the statement immediately, stumbling over his words as he attempted to explain the fact that he’d somehow forgotten to do his assignment. But not that day. No, because that was the fabled day. The one time in his life that his excuse actually worked.

Professor Camaid’s eyes went wide, and she clapped a hand over her chest in surprise. Instead of immediately disregarding his lame excuse, she gave him a look of concern, staring at him as if she’d just seen a ghost.

“Did you say pig-rats?” she asked. “There are pig-rats in your room? You’ve not brought them in yourself, have you?”

“No,” Theta answered quickly. By then, the lie had already gotten away from him, and he was just rolling with it—the entire class staring him down as he did so. “I just woke up this morning and went to my locker and I saw them finishing it off. They were gnawing on every last bit of my essay, leaving only shreds behind. But they’re really small, you know, so I wasn’t really scared of them. I figured they’d probably go away, and they did. I stopped by after breakfast and I didn’t see them again.”

“Oh, good lord.” Professor Camaid took a deep breath. “There are pig-rats in the Academy.”

She dropped the stack of essays onto the floor and ran up to the front of the room. She grabbed the landline on her desk and dialed a number, then turned around to look at the classroom as it was ringing.

“Everyone up,” she said. “We’ve got to go.”

And that was the story of how Theta unintentionally evacuated the entirety of the Academy.

//

“Sorry, what’s happening?”

Rallon wasn’t entirely moving on his own accord, mostly being pushed around by the crowds as they swarmed to get out of the Academy. He hadn’t quite been listening to the announcement when it rang out over the P.A., and therefore wasn’t sure why everyone was in such a panic. Still, he wasn’t usually one to go against the masses, so he followed them outside.

When he made it down the steps, the first person he recognized was Millennia, who ran up to him immediately. She leapt up and wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him as if he was the last person on Gallifrey. Although the gesture frightened him slightly, as he still had no idea what was going on, Rallon was very happy to be hugging Millennia and wrapped his own arms around her eagerly.

“Oh, Rallon, I was so scared,” she said, still holding onto him tightly. “I’ve heard all these rumors about a murderer or something and I couldn’t find any of our friends. I still don’t know where they are, but I’m so glad that you’re here. I’m—quite honestly, I’m terrified. I don’t understand what’s happening and there’s all these rumors floating around, and—oh, my god!”

She jumped away from him and pointed a finger behind Rallon. He whipped around to see what she was looking at, then gasped when he saw Drax and Ushas coming out of the Academy. More specifically, a startlingly blue Drax coming out of the Academy. Everything about him was tinted blue, including his hair which looked almost as if it had been dyed. He didn’t gasp like Millennia had, but frowned, a look of confusion appearing on his face.

“Don’t you say a fucking word,” Drax snapped, when he noticed them staring at them. He pointed his own finger at them threateningly, his eyes narrowed slightly in defense. “You even think about mocking me, and I will break your fucking fingers. I don’t care that you’re nice, by the way, because I’m just that pissed off right now. Also, sorry, because I’m going to feel bad about making those threats later.”

Instead of trying to deal with his unreasonable outburst, Millennia turned to her roommate for answers. “Ushas, is everything okay?” she asked. “What happened?”

“I was trying to do this experiment,” she began, “and I accidentally turned him blue. Which was entirely unintentional, and I promised to try and fix it, but now we’ve been sent out here because of some kind of an infestation scare? So that’s going to slow down the whole process.”

“Infestation scare?” Rallon repeated. “What do you mean an infestation scare?”

“Didn’t you hear the Headmaster over the P.A.? Apparently, someone’s started a rumor about pig-rats infesting everyone’s lockers, so now they’re doing some kind of a search to make sure that we don’t all get diseases. It sounded pretty serious, but I highly doubt that any of it is actually true, so I wouldn’t be too concerned about it if I were you. It’s probably just a stupid prank. I don’t know by who, since we’ve got an alibi for the resident idiot, but—”

“Fucking shit, Ushas,” Drax snapped. “I’ve told you like twelve times that you’re in no position to make fun of me. Can you just stop? Please?”

“All right, I won’t make any more jokes.” She rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to get so pissed off though. I mean, Jesus Christ, Drax, you’re shaking.”

“No, I’m not. I’m not shaking. Am I shaking?” He glanced down at his hands, as if he didn’t know what he was going to find, then looked back up at her after confirming that he was, in fact, shaking. “Okay, yeah, but I’m not shaking because I’m angry. I don’t know why I’m shaking. Maybe I’m cold? No, I’m not cold. It’s fucking boiling out here.”

Millennia frowned, a concerned expression appearing on her face. “It’s not boiling, it’s slightly chilly. Are you all right, Drax?”

She took a step closer to him, reaching out to touch a hand to his face to feel if he was warm, but he stumbled backwards; just inches away from the crowds of noisy students that were surrounding the area. He nearly tripped over his own two feet in his hurry, his breathing becoming suddenly erratic as his panic got worse.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just—don’t touch me, please.” Drax blinked several times, glancing around the area as if he didn’t want to make eye-contact with anyone. “I think I’m just a bit claustrophobic, maybe? It’s fine, though. I’m fine.”

“You really don’t look fine, honey.” Millennia kept her distance, but furrowed her brow, her entire posture softening as she tried to figure out the best thing to do. “Are you sick? Did Ushas’s experiment do something?”

“Aside from make me fucking blue? No. I don’t think so.”

“Well, are you sure you’re all right? Do you need anything? I have a bottle of water in my bag, if you—”

“Fucking Christ, Mil.” Drax let out a deep breath and crossed his arms. “I know I’m a basket-case, but you don’t have to treat me like I’m a fucking time tot.”

She looked hurt. “I’m not trying to treat you like a child, Drax. I’m just worried. You—”

“Stop being fucking worried!” When he shouted, Rallon stepped in between them, as if he was planning to somehow protect Millennia from his words. “I’m fine. Everything is fine. This is fine.”

“Calm down please,” said Rallon. Despite his gentle words, he spoke with a harsh, threatening tone, and Ushas was almost convinced that he was going to stand up for himself for once. “If you’re going to keep being a dickhead then I’m going to have to go get a professor.”

“Get a professor for what?”

They all whipped around when they heard Borusa’s voice from behind them, and they whipped around to look at him. He clearly hadn’t heard any of the yelling, as the expression on his face was mostly calm, with a hint of an urge to take them down. He had a single dark eyebrow raised as he waited for an answer, his arms held tightly behind his back.

“Well?”

“It’s nothing, Professor,” Ushas reassured him. “We’re just having a bit of a disagreement. Everything is within the rules, though. I promise.”

“Hm, well, it had better be. Don’t think I won’t be keeping an eye on you.” He took one more look over the group and froze when he landed on Drax. “What’s wrong with him?”

As soon as he spoke, the other three students waved their hands around frantically, begging him not to go on. Luckily, he caught the hint and decided to let it go.

“I’ve got my eye on you,” he concluded, before wandering off into the crowd.

“Well, that was nerve-wracking,” said Rallon, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Any of you guys feel like he could murder the President?”

Ushas rolled her eyes. “No, obviously not. He’s perfectly fine when we’re not ruining everything.”

“Right.”

“Anyway,” Millennia started, “are you absolutely sure you’re okay, Drax? I’m not trying to baby you, I promise, it’s just that your face is turning really red. Or, well, purple.”

Drax blinked, and suddenly she realized that his eyes were turning pink as well. He took a deep breath, then another, and opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t. Instead, he twisted his hands around nervously and took even one more breath, still shaking as badly as he had been.

Before anyone had a chance to do anything else, another one of their friends finally peeked out of the crowd, pushing his way through the hordes of noisy people that crowded around the area. He saw Rallon and Millennia first, then Ushas, but didn’t stop nor say anything until he found Drax.

“Hi,” he said, his voice significantly quieter than the rest of the crowd’s. He walked over to his roommate and stopped just a foot away from him—putting him closer to Drax than the rest of his friends, but not the strangers in the crowd.

“Hi.” Drax didn’t look at him but stared straight ahead as he bit his lip.

“Are you okay?”

He slowly turned his head. When he spoke, his voice came out in almost a whisper. “There’s so many people.”

“I know.”

“And I’m fucking blue.”

“I noticed that too.”

Jelpax held out his arms and Drax hesitated for only a second before crawling into them, his shining eyes brimming with tears.

//

“I can’t believe that he actually started this stupid fucking rumor.”

Despite how many people were around, and the obvious dangers to his outburst, Torvic chucked a stone across the crowd. To say that he was pissed was an understatement, considering he’d been there when Theta obviously lied about what happened to his homework. So, the dumbass didn’t finish it—that didn’t give him an excuse to screw everyone else out of their days.

He’d been looking for Theta ever since they got outside, but it wasn’t until nearly an hour later when he finally saw him. When he did, he nodded for his lackeys to move and hustled right over, his dark eyes narrowed angrily.

“What the fuck, Theta?” he snapped. He shoved Theta against the shoulders, knocking the smaller boy off his feet. “You think it’s cool to ruin people’s days now, yeah? Think it’s funny?”

“No, I don’t think it’s funny.” Theta scrambled back up to his feet and brushed the dirt off his robes. “I didn’t make this up, Torvic. There were seriously pig-rats in my locker. And if you don’t believe me, then feel free to punch me into a pulp.”

“Fine, I will.” He raised his fist and started to run at Theta but was stopped at the last second by someone intervening.

“Hey, what the fuck are you doing?” Mortimus snapped. He stepped in front of Torvic, blocking his view of Theta and prompting him to lower his fist. “You get your jollies off to fucking up people’s faces?”

“No,” said one of the idiots who stood behind Torvic. “He likes danger, and he’s more badass than you’ll ever be, you idiot.”

“Yeah, eat shit, you lowlife.” Before anyone knew what was going on, Mortimus grabbed a rock off the ground and chucked it at the student. It hit him square in the face and sent him clattering onto the ground. Torvic whipped around to look at him, his eyes wide.

“Oh, you’re going to pay for that, you stupid fucking—”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence due to Mortimus punching him in the jaw when he turned back around. He didn’t pass out when he hit the ground, but he raised a hand to touch where he had been hit, and to wipe away the bit of blood that dripped out of his lips. He glared up at Mortimus, who didn’t have one hint of remorsefulness on his face. Torvic stood up slowly, his entire face twisting as he did so.

“Funny that your knuckles were already bloody before you punched me,” he mused, his eyes narrowed. “You’re acting so tough right now, but either you’re pissed off at yourself, or you’re so pathetic that you’ve already been beating up kids smaller than you. Because well, let’s be honest, you’re not exactly in a position to beat up anyone stronger.”

Theta reached up and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We should just go.”

He ripped away. “I actually find it rather hilarious that you’re trying to emotionally manipulate me right now.” Mortimus took a step closer to him, so they were only inches apart. “Are you aware that I’m the single best psych genius in the school, or are you too busy worrying about your own shitty grades to do that? That’s why you beat on people like us, yeah? Because you’re a fucking failure with abusive asses for parents, and you can’t stand it, so you punch smaller people to feel in control. Well guess what, mate? You’re not fucking in control.”

Though Mortimus hadn’t even been phased by Torvic’s verbal attack, the bully seemed to be thrown by the retaliation, and took several seconds to come up with a response.

“You won’t touch me again,” he sneered.

“No,” Mortimus confirmed, as he took a step back, “but he will.”

He nodded behind him just before Magnus tapped Torvic on the shoulder. The jerk whipped around, only to be met by Magnus’s fist when he did so. Theta wasn’t entirely sure how bad the damage was, but the cracking sound that Torvic’s nose made was not pleasant, and in fact made him wince even though he deserved it.

Koschei walked up right when Torvic hit the ground. He stared in silence for a moment, then rushed over to Theta’s side, as his best friend looked far more upset than he was.

“Oh, my god,” he said, “what happened?”

Before either Theta or Mortimus had a chance to respond, Torvic leapt back up to his feet and clocked Mortimus in the cheekbone. He stumbled backwards, and Koschei caught him right before he tripped. Torvic glared at the three of them.

“I don’t know what kind of a game you’re trying to pull,” he snapped, “but it’s not fucking funny. I am going to destroy you if it’s the last thing I do. Fucking lowlifes.”

He held up a hand for another attack, but before he could, Magnus shoved him back onto the ground, this time stomping on top of him with his foot, effectively pinning him down.

“Now stay down, you fucking asshole.” Magnus looked up at his other three friends. “Now, who wants to tell me what the fuck is going on here?”

“Well, it started when Theta forgot to write an essay,” he began, “and now I’m fairly certain I’ve cracked a tooth.”

//

Unfortunately for Rallon, though the day had started out with him getting a nice long hug from Millennia, it didn’t end with him spending a whole lot of time with her. She decided to spend her day socializing since they didn’t have classes anyway, and disappeared into the crowd, leading Rallon to launch a search to find her. When he finally did, she was already busy talking to other people, leaving him alone.

“Damn,” he mumbled. He sighed and looked down at the bright orange grass, then kicked it angrily. He looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and was met with Vansell standing behind him, his roommate being the one to place a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t wait for him to ask what he was moping about. “This would have been the day.”

“The day for what?” asked Vansell. He followed Rallon’s gaze in an attempt to better understand what he was talking about, then nodded. “Oh. I see.”

“I really want to ask her out, but it’s like something always gets in the way. I almost thought I might do it today, because she was hugging me and it was all so lively, but now she’s chosen other people over me. Again. So, I guess it’s not meant to be.”

“She’s not choosing other people over you, Rallon. She’s always been a bit of a butterfly. She’s got to have lots of friends, but that doesn’t mean she loves you any less. In fact, she loves you more, because she only talks to weirdos during events like this, but she talks to you all the time. That’s got to count for something, yeah?”

Rallon shook his head. “You don’t understand, Van. You haven’t—you’ve never cared about someone the way that I care about her. This isn’t as easy as you think.”

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” said Vansell, “I’m saying that it’s meant to be. There’s not a chance in hell she’s going to say ‘no’ to you, mate. Just go for it.”

“Okay. I can do it. I got this.” He shook himself off, took a step forwards, and froze. “Uh, Vansell?”

“What now?”

“She’s disappeared again.”

Vansell sighed and slapped a hand against his head. After years, he finally convinced Rallon to ask out Millennia, and he was just one minute too late. Stupid crowds.

//

“Okay, come here. Sit down.”

Jelpax grabbed onto Drax’s upper arm with one hand and pulled him down onto the fallen log beside him. It almost frightened him how much his friend was shaking, and more than anything he wanted to help him feel better, but he didn’t know exactly what to do. However, he’d known him long enough to know what not to do, and so he decided to start his list of ideas there.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice staying low. “Is this better?”

“I don’t—I don’t know.” Drax took a deep breath and dropped his head into his hands. “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“It’s okay.” Jelpax almost reached out to place a hand on his shoulder reassuringly but decided that not touching him was probably a better option and pulled his hand back. “Are you still having trouble breathing?”

He hadn’t asked the question because he’d noticed that Drax was struggling to use his own lungs. No, he’d asked because the entire way to the quiet clearing in the woods, Drax had been bitching about three things: the enormous crowd, that he couldn’t breathe, and the unfortunate fact that he was still blue.

On the bright side, Drax hadn’t actually cried, despite his eyes being ridiculously bloodshot, which Jelpax thought was a good sign indicating the fact that he still had a decent amount of control over himself. That being said, he wasn’t sure how normal it was, because though he was used to seeing Drax at his worst, he’d never truly dealt with what he was fairly certain he had on his hands at that moment.

Which was, of course, an actual panic attack.

“My head really hurts,” Drax mumbled. “And I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s from the noise, or whatever the fuck Ushas did to me, or something else—”

“It’s probably because you’re having so much trouble breathing,” said Jelpax. “Take a deep breath. It’ll make you feel better.”

So, he did, and it didn’t. Instead of helping, Drax’s attempts to steady his breathing only made him more aware of the fact that he was shaking, which was already making things worse in itself. At that point, he wasn’t even upset about anything in particular, but so much had happened so fast that he wasn’t even sure what to do anymore. Thinking about that made it even worse still, so he went along with Jelpax’s stupid breathing exercise, hoping that it would at least make a small difference.

Because they were so busy focusing on what they were doing, neither Drax nor Jelpax heard when their friend walked up behind them. Ushas hadn’t followed them right away but stuck around with Millennia until she eventually wandered off to find other friends, at which point Ushas realized that she was going to have to deal with what she did. Although she lacked what most people would call a conscience, Ushas almost felt bad when she watched Jelpax step out of his own comfort zone in order to clean up the mess that she’d created. However, she couldn’t spend too long feeling guilty for what she’d done, as there was another thing that cheered her up in the oddest way possible; which was, of course, the fact that Jelpax was basically acting like a mother.

He was looking at Drax with an uncharacteristic caring face, saying something to him quietly as he reached up to push the hair out of his face. Though he’d been so opposed to Millennia’s touch earlier, Drax didn’t seem to mind with Jelpax, and barely reacted when his hand drifted across his forehead.

When he noticed Ushas leaning against a nearby tree, Jelpax pulled away quickly and turned to look at her, while Drax didn’t move a bit. It was only when she took a step closer that Ushas realized his eyes were closed, his hands gripping onto his legs so tightly they were nearly white.

“Is he okay?” she asked, her tone coming out far less concerned than it should have. When she spoke, Drax opened his eyes, but didn’t look at her. “Nothing weird happening? I don’t mean to intrude, it’s just that if he’s feeling sick, it might be side-effects, and I’d rather that not go unattended.”

“No, I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” said Jelpax. “It’s just his—”

He didn’t finish the sentence, due entirely to the fact that Drax looked over at him with one of the most pleading expressions in the world. He snapped his mouth shut, hoping that Ushas wouldn’t ask about it, but of course she did.

“So, you’re just not going to tell me, yeah?” She crossed her arms. “You know, I could keep Drax blue for as long as I want to.”

Drax whipped his legs over the fallen log and stomped over to her, an aggressive look in his eyes. “No. You are going to fix this as soon as we get back to the fucking Academy.”

“Fine, all right, but to be quite honest with you, I don’t even know what I’m going to do about this. I don’t quite understand how it happened in the first place.”

“Are you saying that you don’t know if you can fix this?” he snapped.

Jelpax stood up and headed over to their side. “Drax—”

“No, shut up. I know that this looks rather ridiculous, but it’s not fucking funny. I’m blue.”

“I said that I’m sorry,” said Ushas. She held up her hands in defense. “There’s nothing I can do now, but I’ll try my best to fix it when we—”

“I don’t care. I do not care. I just—I can’t even—”

“Raising our voices again, are we?” All three of them turned to glare at Borusa when he again wandered up behind them, his hands still clasped behind his back. “I thought you promised to behave?”

“For fuck’s sake, Professor.” Drax rolled his eyes, crossing his arms against his chest. “We’re behaving; it’s just a stupid friend thing. We’re not even bothering anyone else.”

“Hmm… I think I’ll be the judge of that.” Borusa leaned back against a nearby tree. “Now please, carry on. I’d like to see what this whole fight thing is about.”

//

“You all right, mate?”

Theta whipped around when he felt someone tap him on the shoulder, flailing his arms around as if he were fighting against some kind of bird.

“I didn’t do it!” he shouted, his voice cracking slightly. “It wasn’t me!”

Rather than meeting eyes with one of his professors, or anyone else who might get him in trouble, Theta came face-to-face with none other than his older brother, Braxiatel. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that he was still in the clear, his taller brother gazing down at him as if he were an idiot.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “but the fact that you’re being so defensive kind of makes me think that you did do whatever you’re claiming you didn’t.”

“He’s caused a false panic,” Mortimus piped up. He and Theta had hung behind to calm down, while Koschei and Magnus dragged Torvic and his mates off to see the Headmaster. “He forgot to write one of his midterms, so he told his professor that pig-rats infested his locker and ate it up, then leapt onto a nearby student and ate his face too. It was quite a gruesome story, honest, but that’s just your demented brother—always dreaming about one day murdering people.”

“What the fuck, Mortimus?” Theta slapped him, deciding at the last minute to aim for his shoulder and not his already injured face. He rolled his eyes and turned back to his brother. “No, I didn’t actually come up with a story about pig-rats eating a student’s face. I did, however, lie about the fact that I saw pig-rats. Please don’t tell anyone.”

“Why shouldn’t I tell anyone?” asked Braxiatel, crossing his arms. “If I did, we could go back inside far sooner. Honestly, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to keep this to myself. Hey, is your stupid friend okay?”

Theta glanced over his shoulder to look at Mortimus—who took several steps back and was staring off in the other direction—and shrugged. “I don’t know, seems fine to me. Can we just stay on topic here? Because I’d like to confirm that you’re not going to tell anyone about what happened.”

“Again, I’m pretty sure it benefits everyone for me to go tell a professor.”

“Everyone except for me,” he corrected. “So, listen. I have a proposition for you…”

//

Rallon spent around twenty minutes searching for Millennia again before he finally found her hanging around the gardens with a few friends. Somehow, his sudden burst of courage hadn’t disappeared yet, and he still wanted to ask her to go on a date with him. Or, at least ask him to eat dinner with him, which could be taken both platonically and romantically, and would therefore be far less scary and committal than asking her to actually go out with him.

He saw his opening when two of the friends stepped away, leaving Millennia almost on her own. She leaned down to smell a flower, either not knowing or not caring when the other people around her disappeared around the other corner of the Academy. Rallon knew that he had only a short time to get over there before she saw him and accused him of watching her creepily, so he decided that it was time to go. He shook himself off, took a deep breath, and began to walk over to her.

Despite his buckets of courage, Rallon tripped on a rock and fell flat on his face before he could make it to her, and by the time he looked back up, she was gone.

“Tough luck.”

Rallon reached out to take the hand offered to him by Vansell, who pulled him up to his feet. He brushed the dirt off his robes, then leaned as far as he could to look around the building, hoping that he might find a trace of Millennia, but there was nothing. She’d gotten away from him again.

“I’m fairly certain that the universe doesn’t want us to be together,” Rallon sighed. He didn’t look at Vansell, but kept his eyes focused on the last place he’d seen her. “I just wish that I could tell her what I’m feeling at a time when we could actually do something about it.”

“You can,” said Vansell. “You just have to open your mouth and not be afraid of what she’s going to say to you. And don’t tell me that I don’t understand, because I live my entire life this way and it’s really not that terrible. You just have to stop caring what people think.”

“But she’s not people, Van. She’s Millennia. She’s beautiful and perfect and I can’t imagine losing her because I wanted something that she didn’t.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rallon. You’re not going to lose her! I can’t guarantee that she likes you back, but I know that she cares about her friends more than anything else in the universe, and she would never lose you just because you wanted to have a relationship. Never.”

Though he wanted to believe what Vansell was saying, Rallon was wary of getting his hopes up, and sighed again when he turned to look at him. “You really think so?”

“Absolutely. Now go find her again.”

//

“I understand that you’ve done some kind of an experiment gone wrong, but I’m not sure if I can believe that it’s safe anymore.”

Borusa was standing a few feet away from Drax, his attention turned to Ushas. He’d spent the last few minutes attempting to make sure that Drax was physically sound, but he again refused to be touched, and slapped the professor away every time he tried to physically interact.

“I swear to god, Professor,” said Ushas, her voice frantic in fear of getting into trouble, “he’s absolutely fine. If there’s anything wrong with him, it has nothing to do with my experiment. I was just working on a formula for a tan. It’s not even dangerous. As you can see, the damage is completely cosmetic.”

“The damage is not just cosmetic, Ushas.” Borusa took a step closer to Drax, who in turn took a step back. “He’s been shaking the entire time since I got here. Are you sure there’s no drugs in there? Or that you haven’t just been doing them for fun?”

“I’m not drugs, sir,” Drax snapped. “I’m just a bit bothered. There’s really nothing against the rules going on.”

“If there’s nothing against the rules going on, then why are you bothered? I’ve never seen you bothered a day in your life. People with reputations like you haven’t got the time for it.”

He hesitated. Borusa crossed his arms intimidatingly, while Jelpax gave him a look of reassurance. He almost didn’t know what the best way to respond was; torn between telling some fucked up form of the truth, or selling out Ushas by claiming that there actually were some kind of drugs in her experiment (which was, of course, not true at all).

“I don’t like the crowds, sir.” He was unable to meet Borusa’s eyes when he spoke, his voice coming out far quieter than he had intended. “I’ve just had a lot going on today, and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Sorry if this is coming off like I’m doing something against the rules, but I’m really not. I’ve been behaving today.”

“It’s true,” said Jelpax. “I’ve spent the better part of the day with him and he hasn’t done anything wrong, but he’s definitely very agitated.”

Borusa frowned. “Really? I’ve never known you to have issues with this before.”

Again, Drax didn’t respond right away. He wet his lips and glanced back and forth between Ushas and Borusa, as if he wasn’t sure what he needed—or wanted—to say. Eventually, he looked to Jelpax for an answer, but he only stared back in response, forcing Drax to come up with a response entirely on his own.

“It’s nothing new, sir,” he mumbled, his eyes downcast. “I’ve just done a really good job of hiding it.”

And, even though Ushas clearly wanted to know more, Borusa accepted it as a solid answer and finally dropped the subject.

//

“I just want you to promise that you’re not going to say anything,” said Theta. “Please. It’s not like I’m asking you to write in blood or something, I just need some kind of verbal confirmation so I can hold this against you in the event that you break your word.”

“Shut up, Theta Sigma,” Braxiatel snapped. He wasn’t standing in front of Theta anymore, but crouched down beside a sizable rock, which Mortimus was sitting on; his head dropped into his hands. “How could you possibly be so selfish that you’re not even concerned about your friend right now?”

“There’s nothing to be concerned about,” said Mortimus. Despite what he said, he left his head hanging, his eyes closed as if he was in pain. “I just have a bit of a headache. I’m fine.”

As if to make a point, he stood up and took a step forward. It was shaky, and he nearly fell over, but he managed to catch his balance without falling over first. Braxiatel rushed over to his side, but didn’t place a hand on him, more as if he was waiting to make sure that nothing did happen rather than to prevent something that was already in motion.

“What’s going on?” asked Koschei. He and Magnus were walking back up, Koschei’s brow twisted in concern. “Why are you here, Braxiatel?”

“I showed up because I saw Theta and wanted to make sure that he wasn’t getting himself into a whole bunch of trouble. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the worst of it.” Braxiatel sighed and turned to look at Koschei. “Now, I’ve decided to stick around because I’m fairly certain there’s something wrong with your friend.”

Before he could even point out what was happening with Mortimus, they turned to see that Magnus was already standing in front of him, his own unmovable face sunken in a mixture of fear and concern.

“Open your eyes,” he said, his voice still more commanding than concerned. “Mortimus, open your fucking eyes. Look at me.”

“Magnus, I’m fine.” Mortimus lifted his head up slowly, pushing his hair out of his face as he did so. Regardless of what he said, Mortimus’s dark eyes were bloodshot and brimming with tears. His left cheekbone and the area beneath his eye were both unnaturally dark, sticking out against the rest of his pale skin. “I don’t know what you’re all so worked up about. Everything is—”

Before Mortimus had the chance to finish his sentence, he took a step forwards and nearly came crumbling to the ground. The only thing that stopped him from collapsing completely was Magnus, who caught him beneath his arms before he managed to completely lose his footing. For once, Magnus didn’t seem entirely reluctant to touch Mortimus, and didn’t complain at all about having to support the majority of his weight.

“Okay, you’re not fine.” Magnus hauled Mortimus back onto his feet after his knees buckled, then grabbed onto one of his arms and slung it around his shoulder to keep him upright. “He’s not going anywhere, so one of you lot need to go find a professor, or the nurse, or an icepack before he passes out.”

“I’m not going to pass out.” Again, despite his insistence, Mortimus had closed his eyes and was entirely compliant when Magnus eased him back down onto the rock. “My face just hurts a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. And my head. I kind of feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“Don’t listen to him.”

“All right, all right, we’re going,” said Theta. “Kos and I will go find help.”

“No!” Braxiatel was quick to refuse and ran over beside his brother quickly. “I will go with you. I’m not letting you two troublemakers get distracted when you’re supposed to be helping your friend. Koschei, you stay here and make sure everything is okay. If anything goes wrong, you call me or Theta immediately, yeah?”

“Yeah, all right.” Koschei nodded and took a seat down beside Mortimus and Magnus while Theta and Braxiatel ran off to find help, leaving the three of them on their own.

For a few minutes, they sat there in silence, and not just because Mortimus begged them not to talk due to his increasingly painful headache. But when Koschei noticed a tear slipping down Mortimus’s face. Magnus didn’t verbally express his concern, but Koschei’s entire face fell, and he looked up at Mortimus with one of the most worried expressions he’d ever remembered having.

“Are you okay?” he asked, keeping his voice quiet so as not to irritate his friend.

Mortimus sniffed and nodded but stopped after a minute and winced. “It fucking hurts,” he mumbled.

Koschei didn’t entirely understand how bad it was until he looked over at Magnus and realized that he was just as worried about their friend.

//

“Professor Borusa!”

Theta stopped running when he saw their professor standing beside a few of their friends, looking decently pissed off. He was breathing heavily by the time he got to them, and was about to ask if Professor Borusa had seen the nurse or if he could help, but unfortunately, he got sidetracked when he saw that there was something rather odd about one of his friends.

“Why is Drax’s hair blue?” he asked, his face scrunching up.

“See?” said Ushas, reaching over to flick Drax across the shoulder. “I told you that you could barely even see it on your skin.”

He rolled his eyes, and luckily didn’t say anything, giving Braxiatel the opportunity to ignore the stupidity that was happening and head straight for their professor, who looked like he was about ready to punish them for whatever they were screaming about.

“Professor,” said Braxiatel urgently, “there’s been an incident. One of his friends is really hurt.”

“It’s Mortimus,” Theta clarified, ignoring his friends’ concerned reactions, “and before you accuse us of doing anything stupid, it’s not our fault. Torvic jumped us and we already took him to the Headmaster, but he hit a couple of us before we stopped him and I think he got Mortimus the worst because he’s really in a lot of pain and his face is turning really red and I’m really, really worried.”

“Ah, okay.” When he first started talking, Borusa looked ready to shout, but by the end of it his expression was nothing but concern for his student. “Let’s go see him.”

//

“Now, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t understand why the hell you’re not doing anything right now.”

“Truthfully? Me neither.” Rallon stared down at his feet, which seemed to be refusing to move. No matter how much he wanted to walk over and sit on the steps beside Millennia, he found himself stuck beside Vansell, completely unable to force himself to move no matter how hard he tried. “I really want to go over there right now. More than anything in the entire world, I want to go over there and hug her and tell her that I love her so much and I—”

“Okay, stop.” Vansell held up a hand. “You need to say that stuff to her, not me. Despite what you may think, I really don’t care about your exact feelings. But Millennia does. So, go over there and talk to her without tripping over yourself this time, all right?”

“Got it. Let’s go.”

Vansell didn’t get a chance to correct him before Rallon turned around and ran off in the other direction, disappearing into the crowds of evacuated students.

//

By the time Theta returned with Borusa, Koschei was so stressed that even he was on the verge of freaking out. Magnus was somehow keeping his cool, even letting Mortimus squeeze his hand at one point when he needed an outlet for his pain, but Koschei didn’t know if he was going to be able to take it for much longer. Mortimus had gone from silent pain to shaking breaths and an endless stream of tears spilling out of his eyes, no matter how hard he looked to be trying to keep himself calm.

“Oh, thank god.” Koschei leapt to his feet when he saw them walking up, and ran over to Theta, while Borusa went straight to Mortimus. “Where’s Braxiatel?”

“He went to look for the nurse,” said Theta, chewing on his thumbnail nervously. “We couldn’t find her, so we just got Borusa since he was there.”

They both kept quiet after that, stepping closer to be within range to hear what he was saying when he spoke to Mortimus. At first, he just asked him to look up, but he refused, even pulling away when Borusa tried to look at his face. It was impossible to see the damage at the angle he was sitting at, as his hair was spilling over his cheeks and blocking any view there might have been of the bruise or worse damage. After a minute, he finally gave up and decided to tend to a different matter first.

“What happened to his arms and fingers?” he asked, the question directed at Magnus since his roommate was clearly in no position to respond. Although he was so reluctant to be touched near his face, Mortimus allowed Borusa to look at his bloody fingers, and the light bruises that spotted the visible skin below his elbows.

“I don’t know.” Magnus shrugged; his tone filled with nothing but honesty. “Some of the blood on his knuckles might be from Torvic, ‘cause he clocked his jaw pretty good, but it’s been there for days. The bruises too. Actually, they’ve pretty much become a constant, if you know him well. They just pop up every now and then. I don’t know where he gets them from.”

The revelation was clearly concerning to Borusa, but he chose not to say anything about it yet. Instead, he simply nodded and looked back to Mortimus, clearly trying to keep any sort of rage or annoyance off his face.

“Okay, I know that it hurts a lot, but I need you to look at me, all right?” Still, Mortimus didn’t budge. The only visible features that weren’t hidden beneath his hair were the bright pink flush on his cheeks and tears that seemed to have soaked the entirety of his face. “I’m not going to touch you; I just need to see what happened.”

“He fucking punched me in face,” Mortimus mumbled. He lifted his head slowly, blinking rapidly as he did so. His eyes were almost bright red but lost much of their watery quality since he was no longer resisting it. “I mean, I—I punched him first, but it wasn’t that bad, and now this hurts like shit.”

Borusa knelt on one knee and leaned in so he’d be able to see how badly Mortimus was hurt before the student inevitably moved away again. While he’d almost expected the resident drama queen to be exaggerating whatever happened, Borusa was almost shocked when he saw the actual state of his face and hoped that Braxiatel would show up with the nurse soon.

Mortimus’s entire face was flushed pink, looking almost red against his remarkably pale skin. His eyes were scarily bloodshot, and the left was starting to turn black due to the injury he had sustained beneath it. In regard to that injury, the left side of Mortimus’s face—specifically on his cheekbone—had turned from red to almost purple, the bruising looking nearly ten times as bad as the minor pains on his arms.

“All right, I’m going to touch you now, but I’m going to be very, very careful, okay?” Borusa waited until Mortimus nodded, so as not to freak him out again. “Tell me if this hurts.”

As it turned out, Mortimus did not have to say anything, as his short scream took care of that for him. Borusa pulled away quickly and allowed him to drop his head back down again, this time not getting annoyed when he refused to respond again. Instead, he sighed and stood up, brushing the dirt off his knees. He turned to look at Magnus, who also rose to his feet so to stand at the same level as him.

“I’m fairly certain he’s fractured his cheekbone,” he said, “but I really don’t know much about medical things, so we’ll have to get the nurse to do some x-rays to know for sure.”

Magnus nodded. “He’s going to be all right though, yeah?”

“His face might be messed up for a few days, but he’ll be absolutely fine. That said,” Borusa added, “you might want to talk to the nurse about his arms and knuckles too. I don’t know where he’s getting those from, and they’re clearly not that severe, but it’s definitely not something you should just let go. These things go from zero to one-hundred faster than you can know.”

“Okay. Thanks, Professor. Sorry about the trouble.”

Borusa shrugged. “Beats wandering around looking for troublemakers all day. Speaking of, I should probably go check on Ushas and Drax again. You’re all right here?”

“Yeah.” Magnus glanced over at Theta and Koschei, who were still watching them silently, then at Mortimus, and finally back to Borusa. “I’ll keep an eye on him until the nurse gets here.”

“Thank you. You did the right thing coming to get a professor, by the way. You lot can be trouble, but you’ve definitely got something there when it comes to friendship.”

He took only one more look at the four of them before he turned around and headed back towards the rest of the crowd. Once he was gone, Magnus turned to Theta and Koschei dramatically, a deadly serious expression on his face.

“After all the drugs, Mortimus isn’t going to remember this, and nobody else knows but you two,” he said. “You tell anyone that I acted like I cared for him, and I’ll have your heads. Understand?”

Theta and Koschei only nodded in response.

//

“Okay, come on.”

Even though he didn’t want to, Rallon was forced to go along with it, since he’d given up on getting away from Vansell ages ago. He had a surprisingly strong grip and kept his hold on Rallon for as far as he wanted to drag him. He pushed him towards the crowd, forcing him to face his fears and sink headfirst into the groups of people—finally conquering his horrible anxiety related to large groups of people.

Or, at least, that would have been a whole lot less scary than where Vansell was really taking him; which was, of course, to go actually ask Millennia to go on a date with him.

Rallon still wasn’t entirely sure why he ran away in the first place. His conscious mind wanted more than anything to go up and talk to Millennia, but something way in the back of his head kicked on his instincts and forced him to run away from the things that mattered to him the most. He didn’t know if that had something to do with his old fear of commitment, but made a side note to think about it later in case he had to worry about old issues again.

“I really don’t know if this is a good idea,” said Rallon nervously. “I mean, I know that you think she’ll like me and all, but there’s so much working against me, and I’m just terrified that I’ll end up losing her forever, you know? And she’s my best mate. I can’t even imagine—”

He cut himself off when he saw her standing in the crowd. Her bright blue hair was shining against the rest of the boring colors all around, her smile lighting up the area like the greatest tune there ever was. Rallon’s entire body softened and he barely felt it when Vansell finally released his grip. Suddenly, he wasn’t so scared anymore. Suddenly, it was like everything was coming together in his favor, and all he needed to do was ask her to go on a date with him.

So, he pulled himself away from Vansell and walked over to Millennia, his mind practically turned off as he fought to get to her before his fears turned on him again. He shoved through the crowds of people, apologizing more times than he could count as he did his best to get to her before it was too late. He knew that his courage and confidence would be gone in seconds, and he had to make it to her before then. He had to tell her everything before he couldn’t do it anymore.

“Millennia?” he called. He ran towards her, and she smiled, not seeming to notice the sense of urgency he held. “Millennia!”

He stopped beside her, and she frowned, clearly concerned about what was happening.

“Rallon?” she said. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Everything is okay,” Rallon confirmed. “Everything is better than okay. I just need to tell you something really important.”

“Oh, all right. What is it then?”

And so, in that perfect moment, with Millennia’s beautiful face all ready to hear the news, and Rallon finally feeling brave enough to do it, he opened his mouth to speak, and—

—a siren rang out, cutting him off just seconds before he could tell her how he felt.

//

“You promise you’re going to be able to take care of this, yeah?”

“Yes.” Ushas nodded for what felt like the millionth time. The all-clear had officially been called, and the students were all hustling back into the Academy. At that moment, Ushas and Drax were making their way up the stairs, on their way into the building. “I absolutely promise that you’re going to be restored to your normal form sometime in the next couple of days. I’d like to say it’ll happen tonight, but you know that I can’t make promises like that. It takes more time for me work out how to fix these things.”

Drax groaned. “You just aren’t working on it with enough urgency,” he said. “If it were you who was blue, you’d have fixed it by now.”

“But it’s not, is it? That’s why I have you to be my lab rat. Now come on.”

She grabbed onto his ear and dragged him down the hallway behind her, intending to take him straight to the science lab so she could cook up yet another concoction.

As she rounded the corner, disappearing out of range, Jelpax walked into the building on his own; Rallon and Millennia trailing only several feet behind him, and one of them far cheerier than the other. Millennia was smiling and waving to everyone as she walked past, while Rallon was staring at the ground, his hands stuffed into his pockets. Although he still wanted to ask her out, he felt like his moment had been ruined, and his confidence had all but disappeared again. So, instead of trying to ask her anyway, he decided to put it off again. What was the harm in that?

Next to walk into the building were the Academy nurse, and Magnus—who still had one of Mortimus’s arms slung around his shoulder as he dragged the incredibly loopy student through the hallways. Although the nurse’s cure was not instantaneous (she hardly had anything on her when they were evacuated), she’d given him some relatively hard painkillers, which were making him act rather more ridiculous than normal. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t quite enough for him to get loose with his words.

“Come on, Mortimus,” said Magnus, “just tell me what’s happened to your arms.”

“Me imaginary friends beat me up.” He wasn’t quite sure what kind of joke the lie was supposed to be, but it was quite possibly the dumbest that Magnus had ever heard from him, and the slight slurring of his words wasn’t helping at all—especially since it thickened his accent to an almost unintelligible point. “What’d ja think? Lit’l fairies knockin’ me arms wif kid-sized hammahs?”

Magnus sighed. No matter how much his curiosity had been piqued that afternoon, it was obvious he wasn’t going to get a clear answer until Mortimus was actually coherent again, so he decided to give up the fight. It just wasn’t worth fighting with someone who didn’t have the ability to fight back.

The last Deca members to enter the school behind the lone Vansell were Theta and Koschei, who were finally past their fearful moment from before. They were joking around as they skipped up the steps, shoving each other playfully and congratulating themselves on the fact that they’d finally managed to get Torvic into trouble; as well as reliving the moments that he’d been hit, and the beautiful moment that followed Magnus shoving him onto the ground and stomping on his back.

Halfway through one of their joking recollections, a hand slammed onto Theta’s chest, and he came to a halt, Koschei stopping beside him instinctively. At first, Theta thought that the bullies had come back for them since almost everyone else had gone, but it only took one look to realize that it wasn’t another student at all, but rather the Headmaster.

Theta couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the man outside of his chair, and his height was greatly impressive. He swallowed hard and looked up at his intimidating face, waiting for whatever horrible words were about to come at him. Was he getting in trouble for the fight? Had Torvic and his lackeys actually proven them to be the villains somehow? He knew that there was no way for him to get out of the fight, but still, he wished that he could go back in time and stop it from ever happening. To save himself from a punishment he didn’t deserve.

“Theta Sigma,” said the Headmaster, his deep voice echoing in the entryway, “I’ve just heard from your brother that you are the one who lied about the pig-rats infesting the Academy.”

He froze. It wasn’t about the fight at all. It was about the thing that started the whole mess, that he’d somehow forgotten about amid all the other excitement. Suddenly, Theta was even more scared, because he had no way to talk himself out of something that he’d actually done. He had no way to stop himself from getting a punishment that he absolutely deserved, even if he didn’t want it.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” asked the Headmaster, his eyes narrowed, and his arms crossed against his chest.

Theta took a deep breath. He didn’t know what to say. He had nothing to say for himself, except for perhaps, “Please don’t make me write my midterm.” Of course, he knew there was nothing he could do to get out of the essay—or his punishment—at that point, so he sighed and decided to go with the one thing that he did remember how to say.

“He never promised,” he grumbled, glancing over at Koschei. “Stupid older brothers.”

Chapter Text

Late one night, far past midnight when everyone else had gone to sleep, Ushas and Millennia were still wide awake in their bedroom. They were working on an assignment together, and though they had finished it nearly half-an-hour earlier, had already hit their second winds and were no longer prepared to fall asleep. So, instead, they made popcorn, found some candy, and started messing around and gossiping like they hadn’t done in a very long time.

“Have you ever thought about having a boyfriend?” Millennia asked suddenly. She was sitting upside down, hanging off her bed while wearing soft pink pajamas. Ushas was sitting in her own bed, wearing a much less colorful tank top and red pants, and didn’t look up from her carton of ice cream, nor attempt to answer the question. “I mean, like, really thought about it?”

“Not as much as you have,” said Ushas, “but I suppose I have, once or twice. Why?”

“Who have you thought about? Like, do you have someone in mind, or is it just some random guy? Because I never thought about it until I had someone in mind and according to my magazine, that’s weird, because most girls fantasize about having a macho boyfriend before they actually meet someone that they want to go on a date with.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t think I’ve really thought about a specific person. I mean, there’s a couple of blokes who are attractive, but there’s no one who really comes to mind. Which makes sense of course, since we only personally know a bunch of dorks and I’m not interested in dating someone I don’t know well.”

“That’s not fair.” Millennia sat up and turned herself into a regular sitting position. “Our friends might be kind of goofy, but I wouldn’t really call them dorks, unless you meant it in a nice way.”

“I didn’t mean it in a nice way,” Ushas confirmed, “I meant it in an, I would literally never date any of those guys way. And don’t try to change my mind just because you have a crush on Rallon.”

“Oh, come on, Ushas. They all have some redeeming qualities. Just, imagine having them as a boyfriend for a minute, okay. You—Actually, you know what? We should make a list. It’s hard to keep track of his just in my head. I’ll grab a piece of paper.”

Millennia stood up and ran over to her desk then grabbed a notebook and pen, then walked over to Ushas’s bed and sat down in front of her. She clicked on the pen, then wrote down a list of all their friends’ names. Ushas watched her in silence, not entirely sure where the idea was going, and not entirely caring either.

“All right,” said Millennia, once she was finished. “I’ve written a list of all our friends. Now, we’re going to weigh the pros and cons of having them as a boyfriend. Not as a regular friend, but as a boyfriend. This hypothetical is all about who you would date. Then, once we’ve figured everything out, we’ll rate them in a top eight style about who would be the best boyfriend. And I just want to clarify that this is entirely subjective, by the way. They’re all wonderful in their own ways, and I’m sure there are plenty of girls out there who would be lucky to have them.”

“Or guys,” added Ushas, “but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, yeah? Now let’s just get this over with. Who’s first? Oh, never mind. Let’s just do Rallon and get him out of the way, since I’m sure you want to spend quite a bit talking about him.”

Millennia’s cheeks flushed pink. “That’s not what this is about, but okay. We can do him first. So, personally, I think that he’d be a really good boyfriend, because he’s incredibly caring…”

Her thoughts drifted off as she thought of the man she’d somehow fallen for—the goofy lawyer-to-be with nerves of a child and the friendliest smile in the universe. Even though she knew that a lot of people didn’t think he was fun, Millennia didn’t care, because he was the sweetest person she’d ever known, and she knew that no one would ever be able to replace him.

//

Millennia was walking down the corridor one evening, when Epsilon came barreling down the hallway towards her. He shouted some kind of preemptive apology before he crashed into her but didn’t stop to say anything after he made impact. Millennia let out a yelp when they collided, then groaned when she dropped all her books, watching them scatter across the floor without anything she could do to keep them in line. She sighed and knelt to lift them up.

“Hey, do you need some help?”

She smiled and looked up when she heard Rallon speak. For some reason, she couldn’t seem to form words, but she blushed and nodded. Rallon knelt beside her and helped to gather up her materials.

“Epsilon’s being crazy again, eh?” Millennia just nodded in response. “Yeah, he never seems to stop with his shenanigans, does he?”

Rallon began to stack the papers that Millennia dropped but stopped when he noticed something out of the ordinary. He frowned and slid the papers over to her, then scooted in closer, his brow furrowed in concern.

“Hey, is your foot okay?” he asked. “You look like you’re trying to keep the weight off it.”

“Yeah, no, it’s fine,” she reassured him. “One of my books landed on it, and kind of messed up my toe. I think I’m okay though, thank you.”

“Are you sure? I’d be happy to walk you over to the nurse. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

Millennia looked up at him, her gray eyes softening as she realized for the very first time, in that totally random situation, that she was absolutely in love with him. Of course, she didn’t actually say that, but stumbled over her words as she spoke.

“That would be great,” she said eventually. “Yeah, okay.”

“Is that everything?” asked Rallon, as he stood up. He checked the floor to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, then grabbed Millennia’s stack of books. “This is my locker right here. I’ll toss them in there and we can pick them up after we get back from the nurse.”

“Okay.” She started to stand up, when suddenly he extended a hand to help her up. He pulled her arm around his shoulders, to help give her support as she basically hopped on one foot. “Thank you, Rallon.”

“Trust me, it’s no problem at all.”

//

“…and honestly, you can say whatever you want, but he’s obviously very good boyfriend material,” Millennia concluded. “I know that the story sounds like something out of a tacky movie, but it really happened, and it was just one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me.”

“You’re absolutely right that it comes from a ridiculously cliché movie,” said Ushas, “but it also sounds really nice, so I guess we’ll consider him towards the top half of the list for right now. Plus, these other things we’ve come up with are actually pretty good too, especially his nice hair, and the fact that he’ll probably be a rich lawyer after school. Although, in my opinion, the boring aspect we’ve singled out is kind of a deal-breaker.”

“For the last time, he’s not boring. You’re just not interested in the same things. And honestly, you should be less annoyed with that, since most people think he’s annoying because he’s not prone to bending the rules.”

Ushas rolled her eyes. “Point taken, but I don’t care. Can we talk about someone else now, please? I think we’ve got everything we need on Rallon to make an informed decision.”

“Fine, okay. How about… Magnus?”

She sighed and leaned back against her pillows. When she thought about the boys she might be likely to date, Magnus was not particularly high on the list. Not because he was unlovable in any way, but because he was… well, basically unlovable, because he refused to love anyone back. That said, she had really come to enjoy his stoic personality, and would trade him for the world—and especially not for a different pair of fists.

“He’s definitely hot, I’m not going to deny that,” Ushas mused, staring up at the ceiling. As she spoke, Millennia took notes, filling up a second page with information on their friend. “He’s got that brooding sexy thing that Rallon—and well, most of our other friends—don’t have. But the thing is, as a boyfriend, I really don’t see him as being anything more than he is right now, which is an ass.”

//

“Can you hand me the wrench?” asked Ushas. She and Magnus had been assigned lab partners for the day and were meant to be working on a physics assignment. However, Magnus didn’t seem remarkably interested in following the curriculum, and had been fucking around with his own thing since they got started several minutes earlier. “Magnus. The wrench.”

He gave her the side-eye. “Get it yourself,” he scoffed. “It’s literally within your reach. Are you incapable of doing anything yourself?”

“I have been doing his entire experiment by myself,” she snapped. She ripped off her goggles and slammed them onto the table, her brown eyes narrowing in disgust. “I don’t understand how you manage to maintain such good grades when you’re such a fucking dumbass. I mean, do you even care about your homework at all?”

“Yes, in fact, I do. It’s just that I find it rather amusing to make you angry, so I’ve been intentionally slacking to piss you off. I could have done many, many things over this time, but instead, I’ve chosen to scroll through my phone, pretending to text somebody instead of helping you with this incredibly exciting, incredibly basic project.”

Ushas opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut and glared at him as she crossed her arms against her chest. “You know, the reason that everyone hates you is because it’s impossible to tell when you’re being sarcastic or not. It makes it a real pain in the ass to talk to you.”

“Good. I like it when it’s difficult for people to talk to me. It makes it easier to avoid them that way.”

“Do you seriously hate people so much?” she scoffed. She rolled her eyes dramatically. “You honestly don’t deserve such a lovely group of friends, Magnus. They’re far too good for you.”

“Too good for me? I think you’re got that backwards, my dear.” The passive-aggressive undertones were not light in his addressing of her. “I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m too good for all of you lot, and yet I still allow you to be occasionally blessed by my presence.”

“Again, I don’t know if that’s intended to be sarcastic or not, because it could quite honestly go either way.”

Magnus shrugged. “Take it however you’d like,” he said. “I don’t really care what you think of me regarding that statement. Or really in general.”

“Yeah, because you know that we all hate you anyway. Watch.” Ushas glanced up to make sure that Professor Azmael hadn’t yet returned, then turned to the table behind them and caught the attention of one of their peers. “Hey, I’ve got a question for you, mate.”

“What?” The blond boy looked rather confused, glancing over at his own partner as if to ask what was happening. He didn’t get anything more than an equally confused look in return. “We’re kind of busy here.”

“Okay, but I am too, and I can’t get back to work until I break his ego. So, do you like him?”

The boy swallowed hard and glanced back and forth between Magnus, Ushas, and his feet. “I, uh, I don’t want to lie, so I guess the answer is ‘no’. Not that I don’t think he’s smart or anything! I just think he’s, uh, rather scary. Please don’t hurt me.”

“I wish I could say that I won’t, but… gah!” Magnus raised his hands as if he was going to attack, and the other student dropped onto the floor in terror. “Ha! I’ll get you next, Ushas. Scare the absolute wits out of you when you least expect it. Now, where is that wrench?”

Even though she knew that he wouldn’t do it, and she’d never admit to how she felt, there was a small part of Ushas that still waited for his jump-scare every day of her life after that.

//

“I know that you don’t want to write down ‘asshole’,” said Ushas, “but there is seriously not a better word to describe him. Magnus is nothing but that—a sexy, brooding asshole.”

Millennia sighed, and still refused to move her pen. “I thought we agreed that ‘overconfident’ and ‘rather stubborn’ were enough for the personality category,” she sighed.

“No, I said that ‘overconfident cock’ and ‘stubborn piece of shit’ were good words to use, and then you turned them PG. Well, nobody asked you to do that, Millennia, and quite honestly, it’s not appreciated. I’d rather you get over your little thing about not insulting our friends than lie about these obvious facts.”

“Yeah, whatever. I’m not writing that down. Hey!”

Although she’d been half-asleep a moment before, Millennia became suddenly and completely alert when Ushas tried to grab the pen right out of her hands. She fought back, refusing to let go of it—therefore allowing Ushas to write whatever rude things she wanted to say about their friends—and held on as tightly as she could, starting an all-out battle of tug-of-war.

It only lasted about a minute before the pen cracked, destroying it and dripping ink all over their hands.

“Oh, god,” Millennia groaned. She hopped out of her seat and ran into the restroom to wash her hands, while Ushas wiped it on her already stained pants and walked over to her desk to get a new writing utensil. “All right, I think we’ve got enough on Magnus, especially since you’re writing down all those horrible things you believe about him. Can we just please be clear that I don’t believe those? And make sure you don’t write over the positives that we came up with, yeah? Because I know that he’s not the nicest person around, but he definitely is loyal, and although I don’t agree with it, he would absolutely beat up anyone for you.”

Ushas nodded. “Yeah, I’m not getting rid of the positives, don’t worry. I’m just trying to focus on this. Now, can we talk about somebody else? I’d like a change of pace from the whole dickhead thing.”

“Of course.” She dried off her hands on a nearby towel and wandered back over to the bed, dragging a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Okay, do you have anyone in mind?”

“Not particularly,” she answered, “though I’d rather not do Vansell next. Like I said, I’d like to have a break from the dickheads.”

“Would you stop calling them that? They’re still our friends, you know. And if you want to talk about somebody who’s always nice, how about Theta? I know that in my experience, he always does his best to be caring.”

“Does he, now?”

Millennia sighed. “Well, mostly…”

//

“Millennia! Millennia, I need your help! Please open the door! Millennia!”

She wasn’t quite sure why Theta was pounding on her door, nor did she have an explanation for the fact that he was shouting up a storm, but she let him into the room regardless. Millennia had promised herself a long time ago that she would do anything to help her friends, and if he needed something, she wanted to be there to assist him with it. As long as it was reasonable, of course. In addition to her promise, she also had a long-term policy to stay out of trouble as much as possible.

“Theta, what’s going on?” she asked, upon opening the door.

Before he answered, Theta ran into the room and slammed the door shut behind him, then leaned back against it, panting heavily. On any normal day she might have thought he was running from a professor or someone whose day he’d interrupted, and since it was a normal day that was exactly what she believed. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow expectantly, waiting for him to explain himself.

“Okay, so I was just trying to help out Koschei,” he said, his voice stunted from his deep breaths. “He totally fell asleep and flunked one of his tests, so I was going to try and help him explain to the professor what happened, but then I ran into Dourgonn on the way. And you know, you can’t just walk past Dourgonn without cracking a joke or two, especially with that new piercing of theirs. I mean, seriously, I had no idea that it’s even possible to get them there. Did you? It’s quite—”

“Get on with it please, Theta.”

“All right well, basically, Dourgonn’s giant of a datemate now wants to murder me. And if that wasn’t bad enough already, I kind of forgot the keys to my own dorm and Koschei is in detention so he isn’t going to be here to open it for quite a bit, so I was stranded. Thank god you’re home, or I would probably be dead already.”

Millennia sighed. “So, you’re not actually going to make me do anything? You’re just hiding here?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Theta confirmed. “Well, mostly, that is.”

“Oh, god.”

“If it’s not too much trouble, I was also wondering if you might maybe be able to cover for me and Koschei? Possibly? Just if anyone asks about a specific thing that happened regarding this whole situation, you would give an alibi so that we don’t get caught. Not that there’s anything we would get caught for. But you know, if I did something really stupid and against the rules to protect him, could you lie for me?”

“I’d really rather not lie to our professors,” said Millennia awkwardly, “but I suppose I’ll make an exception for once. Just to be clear, however, this is only because you’re doing it for Koschei. If you were doing it just for yourself, I wouldn’t be helping you. You are really doing this for Koschei, right?”

“Of course, yeah.” Theta nodded quickly. “If it was me, I’d take the punishment right away, but I don’t want him to know that I did this. It was kind of a stupid thing to do. By the way, please don’t tell him about it.”

“All right, I won’t. Although, if you’re going to be stuck in here for a while, we might as well talk. So… what did you do?”

He hesitated before nodding reluctantly. “Okay. Well, it actually started a few weeks ago…”

//

“No, I think I agree,” said Millennia, as she scribbled on the notepad in front of her. “He’s rather cute, and funny, and definitely rather caring, but I don’t think I would ever date him. He’s more like a really good little brother than anything else.”

Ushas, who was leaning back against her pillows again, nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I think too. He has his fun moments, but I can’t think of any situation in which I’d actually want to go out with him.”

“But again, that doesn’t discredit his ability to be a great friend. It’s just that we wouldn’t ever think of him as a romantic partner.”

“Millennia, there is literally nobody else in this room. Why do you still feel the need to defend all of our friends? I, for one, am not going to be offended by anything we say, nor are the twenty other non-existent people in our dorm at the moment.”

“I just don’t want to get in the habit of badmouthing the people that I care about.” Millennia shrugged and clicked her pen off. “I don’t mean to be acting like a prude or something, I just don’t like being a jerk for absolutely no reason. Isn’t that why we decided that Magnus wouldn’t be good boyfriend material?”

“Yes, but boyfriend criteria is separate from best friend criteria,” Ushas argued. “See, I wouldn’t want to date someone who was really rude, but it can be fun to have a friend like that sometimes, which is why we still keep Magnus around even though he’s an asshole. And don’t argue with that statement, because we already agreed on that earlier.”

“Right.” She sighed, knowing that Ushas had a point to what she was saying. “Anyway, who do you think we should talk about next? We’ve still got five more boys to go.”

“Hm.” Ushas didn’t answer right away, but took a moment to think about her answer, tapping her own pen—for she had finally gotten the sense to grab a second one—against her chin as she thought. “Well, obviously, the first person that comes to mind after Theta is Koschei. Although, we’re going to have to start at square zero on ideas for him, since he and Theta are basically polar opposites.”

“See, I don’t really agree with that. I think that they’re a lot more similar than people are willing to admit to.”

“No, they aren’t. If you walk into their dorm room, you can see a physical line dividing their halves of the room. You don’t get more different than that. Now, please, let’s just discuss what we think of him, starting with the fact that he’s intolerably self-centered…”

//

There was almost no reason that Ushas would ever even consider asking Koschei for his help. On any ordinary day, she would run away from him before she’d even consider thinking about asking for his help, but that was no ordinary day, nor an ordinary situation. She knew that he was the only person who would be able to assist her in her difficult quest, so she was forced to swallow her pride and send him a message asking for his assistance.

As per usual, Koschei did not show up anywhere near on-time. Ushas waited outside for far too long, leaning back against one of the trees nearest the Academy and frequently checking her watch as she waited to her something from her stupid friend. However, minutes passed and passed and still, he didn’t show up. Even when she sent him a message, practically begging to know where he was, he didn’t answer. He ignored her, further solidifying her theory that he would never truly care about her.

After nearly half an hour of waiting for him to arrive, Ushas finally decided to give up. She had nothing left to look at on her phone, and no more patience in her to simply stand there and do nothing. She was about to turn around and try to figure things out on her own, when suddenly she saw him. Running down the stairs of the Academy, his dark hair blowing back in a combination of the wind and the resistance, was Koschei—his school robes gliding behind him like some sort of cape as he practically rushed towards her like some kind of an action hero.

He hadn’t started running until he actually spotted her, at which point he hauled ass to get to her as quickly as possible. From her perspective, Ushas thought that he was moving in slow-motion, but she knew that he was actually running at a normal speed because of the way that he knocked over a younger student in his hurry. When he finally made it over to her, Koschei was breathing heavily, his semi-muscular chest rising and falling as if he’d just run a marathon rather than give or take ten feet.

In addition to Koschei’s over-dramatic breathing, Ushas herself felt her breath caught in her chest, her heart skipping a beat each time Koschei blinked his bright blue eyes. Somehow, he looked almost different to her in that light—like he wasn’t a stupid prankster with few redeeming qualities, but rather an actual, attractive person. Someone that she could look at with admiration, even if she knew that many of his skills weren’t remarkably useful, nor interesting in her opinion.

“Uh, Ushas? Hello?” Koschei waved a hand in her face, causing her to finally blink out of her fantasy. She stared at him for a second, opening her mouth and snapping it shut again like a fool, suddenly unable to find any words to say. “I know you’re mad, so sorry. I was being a bitch in class again, so Borusa took my phone, and then I forgot where I was supposed to meet you, so I didn’t know where to go. I was running all around, but I couldn’t find you, so I ended up just wandering for quite a bit until I spotted you out the window.”

“Oh. Well, it’s, uh—it’s okay,” she said, stumbling over her words far more than she would have liked to. “I’m really not that mad at you. I’ve come to both expect and accept it.”

“All right.” He shrugged casually, as if he somehow didn’t notice that she was seeing him as so much more than a simple friend. “Anyway, what was it that you wanted to talk to me about? You needed my help with something, yeah?”

“Right, yeah.” Ushas nodded, trying to remember what she was supposed to talk to him about, but suddenly she had no idea. There was something that she needed his help with. Someone she needed to take down? She had no idea. No matter how hard she thought about it, she couldn’t recall. Then, right when it was on the tip of her tongue, Koschei pushed up his sleeves, revealing his muscular arms, and she lost her breath. “I, uh, just wanted to, uh, you know…”

Koschei frowned. “Actually, I don’t know, and I’m not going to be able to help unless you tell me. So, are you planning to finish your sentence anytime soon?”

“Obviously. Don’t treat me like an idiot.”

Needless to say, it took Ushas more than a few minutes to remember what she was supposed to ask him for help with.

//

“So, basically, you have a crush on Koschei?” said Millennia. She was no longer hovering over the notebook page, but staring at Ushas, one eyebrow raised. “That’s what this is, yeah?”

“No!” Ushas spat. She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know what part of my descriptions gave you that impression, but it’s absolutely not true. Is he rather nice to look at? Yes. Is he caring, but not in an overly sweet or obvious way? Yeah. But I would probably go out with Magnus before I actually went out with him.”

“And yet, based on your descriptions, it looks like you’ve rated him the highest out of the people we’ve spoken about so far. Funny how that works out, eh?”

“No, it’s not funny at all.” She reached forwards and snatched the notebook, as if she didn’t believe what Millennia was talking about. “Just because I called Magnus ‘the biggest dick alive’, and suggested that Koschei may have—you know what? I’m not going to elaborate on this. We’re supposed to be talking about them as if they were our boyfriends, and that’s all I was doing. Nothing more than that. Please don’t read into this.”

“Okay, I won’t read into it,” Millennia agreed, leaning in to take the notebook back. “But I just want to be clear that you talking about Koschei sounded more like me talking about Rallon than the two we spoke about in between, and I don’t think you’re going to talk that way about the others.”

“Please. It’s just that I’m getting extremely tired and very into the zone on this. Once we move on, I’m sure you’ll think that I have a crush on all of our other male friends as well.”

“I doubt it. I mean, what about—” she glanced down at the list, looking for the least-likely out of the four remaining boys, then looked back up at her “—Drax?”

Despite what she had said about her new way of reviewing the boys’ qualities, Ushas couldn’t stop herself from laughing when Millennia suggested him, and in fact took several seconds to get herself back under control once she’d lost it. She wiped a few tears out of her brown eyes and smiled at Millennia, shaking her head slowly.

“Me? Have a crush on Drax?” she snorted. “I know what I’ve said, but I don’t think it’s even possible for me to imagine him as my boyfriend. I mean, he can be really sweet sometimes, but the boy is not boyfriend material. He’s like, the not-gay gay best friend, you know what I mean? Plus, he’s way too clingy, and honestly a bit of a basket case with all of his mood swings.”

Millennia didn’t answer right away. On the one hand, she thought that she did know, but on the other, she wasn’t sure that he lacked any boyfriend-like qualities. After all, he was definitely rather charming, and incredibly friendly despite his knack for bitching, she just had trouble seeing either of them with him. In fact, she had trouble picturing him with anyone at all, and suddenly wondered if Drax wasn’t just lying when he said he wouldn’t go on a date until he met “the right person”.

That said, she did have to admit that he had a lot of GBF qualities, despite the fact that he was—to their knowledge—not gay, and she had to take a moment to consider whether that was something she’d appreciate in a significant other.

//

“Hey, Millennia, I was wondering if—holy shit!

Millennia had gone from pleasantly surprised to scared out of her shoes within seconds and whipped around to look at the friend who had wandered into her room. Instead of staying in the doorway and waiting for an invitation, Drax walked right over to her, his hands held out as if he was chasing some sort of cat or dog. However, his eyes weren’t directed towards any sort of animal, but the brand new sparkling purple sneakers that Millennia was pulling out of a box.

“My god,” he said, one hand flying across his chest, “they’re beautiful. That shine, that color. Those are quite possibly the greatest shoes I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Does that mean I should get rid of them, then?” asked Millennia. She couldn’t believe that Drax actually cared about shoes and assumed that he was making some kind of joke in regards to the fact that they were too bright, too shiny, or any other related adjective of the sort. However, Drax didn’t roll his eyes when she said that, but gasped as if the very idea of it was insane.

“Oh, god, no.” He looked straight at her, his dark green eyes looking back and forth across her face as if he couldn’t believe what she had said to him. “They’re perfect. The style, that exquisite shade of purple, and good god! Are those waterproof sequins?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“These are the shoes of the fucking future.” Drax sat down on the bed beside her, then reached out to take the box, but stopped short before he took it from her. “Do you mind?”

Millennia shook her head and held it out for him. He took it from her, his eyes fixed on the sparkling shoes as if they were some kind of magical wonder. He stared at them in silence for several seconds, soaking in every inch of them—especially the glitter, which reflected the sunlight and shone even brighter than they would on their own. Millennia thought he looked almost hypnotized, as if the shoes had put him into some sort of a trance.

“Wow,” he said eventually. He lifted one out of the box and held it up in the light, not even wincing when the sequins reflected into his eyes. “This is going to sound really weird, and you’re probably going to go gossip this around the whole Academy because it’s so embarrassing, but like, I’d die if they made these in my size.”

“You’d what?” Millennia’s jaw dropped. Suddenly, she was convinced that he wasn’t just making some kind of weird joke and realized that she was just seeing a side of her friend that she’d never encountered before. “You actually want a pair of my shoes? My purple, sparkle-covered shoes?”

Drax nodded eagerly. “Who wouldn’t? I mean, the only thing that would make these better would be if you had some better laces. You know, like pink sparkles, or shiny blue, or—oh, my god.”

He gasped dramatically, effectively cutting himself off, when Millennia held up a small, unopened package of bright rainbow shoelaces. His eyes went wide, and he nearly dropped the shoes in his surprise. He leaned in to see the shoelaces closer up, his jaw opened just slightly in awe.

“They’re beautiful,” he mused. “My god, Millennia. You have the greatest taste in the entire world. I mean, look at these. Why don’t they make these for men? Wait. Don’t answer that question. That was really weird. You know what? This whole thing is really weird. Can you maybe not tell anyone about this? Especially not Magnus? Because I think he might literally mock me into a pulp if he finds out that I said this stuff.”

“No, I won’t say anything.” Suddenly, Millennia almost felt bad. What started off as a funny conversation had turned into her friend feeling bad about his interests. At the very least, she couldn’t blame herself for it, which was at least a bit reassuring. “But you don’t have to be embarrassed, Drax. It’s really not that weird.”

“I’m a guy who likes sparkly purple trainers and bright rainbow shoelaces. That’s fucking bizarre.”

She took the box back from him when he handed it over, then placed it onto the pillow beside her. “No, it’s not bizarre,” she argued. “There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t like those things. And don’t say that Magnus’s opinions are a reason, because he’s just a rather judgmental person. You can’t let him get to you.”

“I always let people get to me,” Drax mumbled. “That’s who I am. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d kind of like to pretend that this whole conversation never happened. It was really fun at first and I still do like your shoes, quite honestly, but I’m suddenly feeling very uncomfortable in this situation and I’d rather not talk about this anymore.”

“Okay.” Millennia smiled understandingly, though she wished that he wouldn’t be feeling so small. “We don’t have to talk about it anymore. But I just want you to know that I don’t mind, okay? I know that some of our friends can be kind of judgy, but if you ever want to talk about anything—and I don’t just mean shoes, I mean anything—then you know that you can come to me, yeah?”

He bit his lip and nodded quickly. “And the same goes for me. I know I’m not always the most useful person around, but if you ever need to talk to someone, I’m always free. Well, except for when I’m not, but I’m usually on my phone when I’m doing other stuff anyway.”

“That sounds good then. Come here.”

Millennia held out her arms and wrapped Drax in a friendly embrace—one which he happily returned.

//

“I think I get what you’re saying,” said Millennia. They spent several minutes going back and forth as they debated the pros and cons of dating Drax, but she finally felt as if they’d come to a solid conclusion. “I think he’s a really, really great friend, but I wouldn’t want to date him. It would just make things awkward.”

“Exactly.” Ushas nodded and clicked her pen on, then scribbled things down on the page. “So, we’re agreed that Drax isn’t boyfriend material, then?”

“Yeah. But he’s a really great friend. I just can’t see him as anything more than that. For me. I’m sure he’ll find the right person for him someday. Someone who, you know, wants to take care of him during his fits, and appreciates his interesting taste in clothes, and loves his quirks, and—”

“Are we going back to the little brother thing like with Theta? Because I feel like you’re being a protective older sister right now. Are you being a protective older sister?”

“I don’t know.” Millennia shrugged. “I just—don’t tell him I said this, but I kind of see him ending up with someone who’s not good for him. Not by my standards, but like, he gets pushed around a lot and I’m just kind of worried that he’ll end up with someone who spends more time berating him than working towards good things. Not that his relationships are any of my business.”

“Right. So, we should probably get onto the next person then, yeah?” Ushas clicked her pen repeatedly, leaning her head against her spare hand. “Unless you want to talk about Rallon some more? Since you clearly haven’t been as interested since you were talking about his smile earlier.”

She rolled her eyes, an embarrassed smile appearing on her face. “We don’t have to talk about him again,” she said. “I just really like him a lot. You know that. No need to make jokes about it.”

“Yeah, okay. You have a point there. So, who do you want to assess next?”

“Um, who haven’t we done?”

Ushas looked down at the notebook and read through the list of names before turning back to Millennia. “Vansell, Jelpax, and Mortimus,” she answered.

“Oh.” Millennia nodded. “Well, that’s actually an easy one, then, because I think Mortimus has the same kind of thing as Drax. I really love having him as a friend, but I really don’t think I’d ever even consider going on a date with him, especially not after witnessing his many, many failed dates. Not to mention the horrible aftermath that follows.”

“Yeah, you can say that again. I wasn’t ever interested in him in the first place, but I think I’ve been particularly deterred by his disgusting behavior when it comes to women.”

“And men and enbies,” she added.

Ushas sighed. “Also true.”

//

“Hey.”

Mortimus plopped onto the seat across from Ushas. He didn’t wait for a response before he dropped his arms onto the table and buried his head beneath them, his dark hair spilling over the last exposed inches of his face. For a second, Ushas attempted to ignore him, but she didn’t make it to two before Mortimus started mumbling incoherently into his arms. Ushas glanced around, hoping that one of their friends would show up to talk to him instead, but they didn’t, and she was forced to take care of things herself.

“Are you okay, Mortimus?” she asked reluctantly. “You don’t look great.”

Before he even attempted to say anything, Mortimus sighed loudly and dramatically, sliding his arms away from his head. He propped his chin up on one of his hands, then looked at Ushas, the most dejected expression on his face. There was a large part of her that believed he was putting on some kind of a show to make her feel bad for him, but she wasn’t in the mood to get in an argument over it, so she didn’t say anything about it.

“Jael broke up with me,” he said quietly (and again, far more dramatically than he needed to). His eyes were drooping, the sadness clear on his face. “I don’t even know why. It’s one of those times where I’m just having a really, really hard time trying to figure out what I’ve done. And for a brief minute I thought that maybe I hadn’t really done anything at all, but then I realized that the last thing either of us said before we split was, ‘it’s not me, it’s you, Mortimus’, and I think that might mean that I did something. Also, I was at one point accused of being a ‘fucking creep’, but that’s not the first time I’ve heard that one, so.”

“Mortimus, if this person—who, by the way, I had no idea you were going out with in the first place—said that it’s your fault, then it’s probably your fault.” Ushas shrugged, not a tiny bit of remorse on her face. “There’s a small part of me that thinks that’s kind of a bitchy thing to say to a good friend, but honestly, you’re kind of a weirdo. If they said that you did something creepy, then you probably did do something creepy.”

“That doesn’t make sense in context, though. Since when is asking someone about their day a creepy thing to do?”

“Well, that depends. Did you ask them about their day? Or did you tell them about their day? Because I’ve been on the receiving end of both from you, and I can honestly say that one of those is far more unnerving than the other.”

“I—” Mortimus hesitated. His eyes drifted away from Ushas, staring down at the table as he tried to think about what she had said. Somehow, he was unable to understand what she was referring to—either because he was so deeply in denial about his creepiness, or because he was simply that thick, he didn’t know. “I don’t tell people about their days, Ushas. How could I even do that unless I’ve spent it with them? I might be good at understanding emotions, and I do have a knack for his history and remembering things, but I’m not a mind-reader.”

Ushas rolled her eyes. “I’m not talking about you sitting down and literally telling them about your day, you idiot. I’m talking about that thing you do when you notice that one upset crease on their nose and suddenly, you’re babbling about how their brother drove off a cliff. I don’t know how you do it, but it’s like you see a wrinkle and you know exactly what bit of stress drove their face to creating that. It’s unreal.”

“Oh. I guess I don’t really notice it when I’m doing that. I mean, I’m not—it’s not like I’m trying to be creepy, you know? That’s just something that I do.”

“Yes, I know that, and all our friends in the Deca know that, but other people don’t. Especially people that you’ve just met. They don’t know you as well as we do, and they’re not going to understand that you’re not trying to be an absolute creep when you ask them incredibly intrusive questions. Also, even if they do, they might find it so unnerving that they decide not to go out with you anyway. I’m sure you’ve lost a few people to that, yeah?”

“I don’t know.” Mortimus sighed—this time legitimately, not as a drama queen. “I guess I don’t really think about it that much, you know? I just kind of drift from partner to partner. I’ve gotten so used to the rejection that I don’t really stop to listen when they’re throwing me out anymore.”

“And maybe that’s your problem,” said Ushas. She almost felt like she knew what she was talking about in regard to relationships for once. “Do you even know why you’re still dating? If you’re really just ‘drifting’, like you said, what’s the point? Relationships are meant to be meaningful, and none of these sound meaningful.”

“Oh. Huh. Maybe you’re right.” He went silent for several seconds, his eyes flickering back and forth as he considered what she said. “I’m just over-thinking this! Like you said, these relationships mean nothing to me anyway, so why should I care that they’re over, eh? Well, on to the next one!”

Ushas sighed as she watched him wander off. Some things would never change.

//

“Wait, he actually told you that he doesn’t even care about his girlfriends?” said Millennia, furrowing her brow. “And that if they break up with him, he won’t care?”

Ushas nodded. “Yeah. Of course. I mean, why should he care? He’s never been in a relationship that lasted more than two days.”

“I guess you have a point, but it’s still not a nice thing to bring up. And—never mind, I know you’re just going to point out that stuff about us being alone and whatever, so save it. Anyway, I think you’ve pretty much made your point about Mortimus, so that’s probably a good enough list for him. Although, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable leaving ‘super creep’ on the list.”

“Millennia, were you not listening at all during our conversation? He is the definition of a super creep.”

“Well, it’s not like he does it intentionally.”

“Who would ever do it intentionally?” Ushas made a face, properly expressing her feelings about the situation. “That’s just stupid. Kind of like Mortimus.”

“Okay, that’s enough.” Millennia sighed and tossed her pen down on top of the notebook. No matter how funny Ushas thought she was, there was only so much Millennia could take, and she was finished insulting their friends.

“Whatever, buzzkill. We’re close to the end now, yeah? Who else did I say there was?” She yawned and leaned forwards, then spun around the notebook so she would be able to read it. “Oh, right. Dull and Duller.”

“You mean Jelpax and Vansell.” She rolled her eyes. “Okay, who do you want to start with then?”

“Neither. Both of them are intolerable. But I especially don’t feel like discussing Vansell at the moment, so how about you get us started on Jelpax?”

“All right.” Millennia took a second to gather her thoughts before she spoke, wanting to make sure that her initial evaluation was accurate and concise. “Well, a plus is that he’s always willing to assist you. But the obvious downside would be that he’s always a bit preoccupied with Drax.”

“And when he’s not,” Ushas added, “he’s babbling on about things that most people don’t find the least bit interesting. Unless you the Dark Times are fascinating?”

“Just because you like science doesn’t mean you can’t like history too. Besides, I think it’s kind of cool when he does his knowledge dumps. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from him.”

“Yeah? Well, that’s probably just because you haven’t learned to tune him out yet.”

//

It wasn’t often that Millennia got randomly paired up with another Deca member, but whenever she did, she was always pleased to spend extra time with them. Especially when it was a Deca member that she didn’t already hang out with very much, such as Jelpax—her partner for their latest Gallifreyan history presentation. However, there was one downside to working with Jelpax, which was that he found history extremely fascinating, and often talked at speeds that Millennia could not keep up with.

“…I mean, I’m honestly still a bit surprised about that actually happening, and I learned about it when I was in primary school,” he went on, as he had been for countless minutes before that. “Not that I learned such advanced material in such a basic class, but I used to read a lot of books. Like, a lot of books. You know me, not much of a social life. So that’s when I read about the Lord President, and what caused his eventual—”

Jelpax cut himself off when he heard his phone chime, and he turned around to grab it. Millennia wasn’t sure exactly how long he was staring at it, typing on it, and just generally being distracted for, but it was long enough that at a certain point, she just couldn’t take it anymore. She sighed and crossed her arms to keep from tapping her pencil impatiently.

“Sorry, but were you planning to get back to the homework at any point today?” she asked, trying her hardest not to sound too bitchy or annoyed. “We still have a lot more to do.”

“Yeah, just one second,” he answered. He didn’t look at her but held up a finger before typing out another message on his stupid electronic. “I’m just helping Drax with something real quick.”

“Okay, but you’re kind of supposed to be helping me with something right now. And we’re actually assigned partners, so…”

“I know, but this is going to take ages. I can help him in just a couple of minutes. Plus, you’re perfectly capable of doing this assignment on your own. If I don’t help Drax, he’ll probably get fed up, hurl himself out of the window, and injure both himself and his scores. Now,” he said, as he dropped his phone down beside him, “where were we?”

“You were saying something about our former Lord President, I believe. I’m not entirely sure what, though, because you kind of got lost on a bit of a tangent in there.”

“Oh, right. Sorry about that. I remember what I was saying now. I was telling you about how I’m still rather shocked that he…”

Millennia wasn’t trying to tune out her friend, but it happened anyway. She knew how much information they needed for their project, and it wasn’t every single day of every former Lord President’s lives. Not that he was babbling to that extent, but it almost felt like it sometimes. Even though she loved learning, and she cared deeply about all her friends, Millennia was struggling to stay focused, deterred mostly by the sheer amount of knowledge, which was basically strangling her. She was smart, but she wasn’t smart enough to remember every single thing that Jelpax was saying.

“…and you don’t really look like you’re listening anymore,” Jelpax said suddenly, cutting off his own train of thought. “Sorry, am I bothering you? Because you’re more than welcome to do this on your own if you don’t want to listen to me anymore.”

“No, no, no.” Millennia held up her hands in defense, shaking her head quickly. “That’s not what this is about. I didn’t mean to ignore you or anything, I just can’t retain so much information. I mean, I think it’s fascinating, but you’re jumping around so much, and I can’t stay focused and this is just getting really boring. Sorry. I don’t mean anything by that, I’m just really not interested anymore.”

“Oh. Well, that’s all right. I know that I have a tendency to bore people. I just don’t care.”

Out of everything that she had ever heard him say, Millennia thought that was the most accurate description of his personality.

//

“…so, it’s not like I think he’s un-dateable,” Millennia went on, “I just think that he belongs with someone who’s going to be able to listen to him babble. Maybe a girl who’s actually interested in history, or who can retain all the information given to them. Also, someone who is always willing to be second place to his best friend, because I really doubt anything is going to break up those two anytime soon.”

Ushas nodded, then rested her hand on her chin as she thought about what she was saying. “Yeah, that makes sense,” she agreed. “He’s a decent friend, I guess, I just think that he’s going to need a really specialized person to go out with, because any normal person isn’t going to be able to spend an entire day with him, let alone a lifetime.”

“It won’t be that difficult though. At least, I don’t think it can be. He found Drax ages ago, and he tolerates him enough. Although, that being said, I know as a fact that Drax isn’t into history, so there has to be something else about him that he’s more focused on. Maybe we should spend more time with him and see if we can get to know him better. I’m sure it would help with our evaluation here.”

“I don’t think that I’m going to want to spend extra time with him any day soon,” said Ushas, a bored expression on her face, “but thanks for the idea. You can go ahead and do that.”

Millennia sighed. “I don’t want to do it all on my own. I was trying to—oh, never mind. Do you think we should just move onto Vansell? I think we’ve gotten what we can out of Jelpax.”

“Yeah, all right.”

Ushas scribbled down some final notes about Jelpax, then tapped her pen against the notebook as she tried to think of where to begin on the final friend. In her opinion, she would never, ever be able to go out with Vansell, but for some reason, she couldn’t seem to think of any good reasons why, leading her to spend far more time thinking about it than she actually wanted to.

“Okay, I think our first point is going to be that he’s quite shady, obviously,” Ushas began. “Remember when we went to the Medusa Cascade and he went missing for like two days? That was weird. I still don’t even know where he went.”

“I know. I tried asking him about it, but he didn’t want to answer the question. And I don’t mean that he avoided it, I mean that he quite literally decided not to answer the question. He just looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I’m not going to answer that question.’”

“All right, I get it. Can we move on now? I think it’s time you say some good things before I start bitching about his negatives again.”

“Well, okay. Here, I know some positives…”

Ushas tuned her out before she even wrote two of them down.

//

Ushas didn’t say anything when Vansell sat down at the table across from her. It was a mutual understanding that she didn’t want to talk to him, and he didn’t want to talk to her, and so she made the quick decision to just ignore him completely. There was no point in making small talk if she knew that neither of them wanted it.

Then she saw him pull out a leather journal, click on a pen, and watch something that was happening behind her. What was happening behind her, she didn’t know, but she was very interested to find out why Vansell was people-watching instead of doing his actual homework. So, she broke the unspoken pact.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her tone slightly harsher and more accusatory than she had intended.

Vansell didn’t bat an eye, nor bother to glance over at her. “I’m working on something. What are you doing?”

“Wondering why you’re staring at…” Ushas glanced over her shoulder to see what was there and frowned when she realized that it was just some students. Most of them she didn’t recognize, aside from Theta and Koschei who were sitting at a table nearest the window in the back corner. “Theta and Koschei? No. Are you bird-watching out the window or something?”

“No. Why would I be bird-watching from inside of a building? That’s just stupid.”

“Then you’re… taking notes on them like Mortimus does? I don’t have any other ideas on what you’re doing right now.”

“And why would you need any other ideas?” asked Vansell. He dropped his pen and crossed his arms, narrowing his gray eyes slightly. “This is really none of your business, Ushas. You don’t need to know what I’m doing and I’m not going to tell you right now.”

“Implying that you might tell me later?” She raised an eyebrow, crossing her own arms as she tried to challenge his stance. “I’m not demanding that you tell me your entire life plans, Vansell, I’d just like to know what you think you’re doing by writing while staring at our friends.”

“I’m just working on an assignment. Sometimes I do better when I’m looking at other things. I’m not great at staying focused, honestly. My eyes tend to drift all over the place, you know what I mean?”

“No. I do not know what you mean. How can you possible write on a straight line if you’re not looking at the paper? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure, it does,” said Vansell. “This is the exact definition of making sense. What’s not making sense is why you’re trying to interrupt my thinking time. I’m working right now, so please leave me alone.”

And, if only because she had homework to do as well, she did.

//

“He’s just not that pleasant to talk to,” Ushas concluded. “Not that he’s the worst person in the world, just not someone I could ever see myself cuddling with.”

“Wait… cuddling?” Millennia frowned as she chewed lamely on the end of her pencil. “One, I can’t believe that you want to cuddle. I mean, not that it’s an insane idea, just that I’ve never pictured you as being one to think about cuddling. And two, this is something we should have been thinking about all along! Cuddling is very important, and honestly, I don’t think most of our friends would be great at it. That said, I know as a fact that Rallon has some really warm hugs and I’m sure he’d be really good at it.”

“Okay, that was not what I was implying we do, but I understand your wanting to babble about how much you love Rallon’s hugs. Now, can you just go down the hall and tell him that you love him? Because this whole back and forth thing is getting kind of annoying.”

“We’ve talked about this before, and no. It’s not going to happen, so just leave it alone, yeah? Anyway, I think we’ve come up with enough things about our friends to decide who’s the most dateable. Unless you’d like to go back and consider things again?”

Ushas shook her head, her eyes fixed on torn-out notebook pages that were littered on the bed in between them. “There’s a lot of stuff that I think we could reconsider, but our initial judgments were probably right, so I don’t want to do that. Plus, the more that we think about this, the more I find myself drawn to a single conclusion that I’m not sure I want to end this glorious night on.”

“Oh.”

Though she didn’t quite want to admit to it, Millennia was pretty sure she was thinking the same thing as Ushas was. Well, not exactly, as she was fairly confident that Ushas was not about to declare Rallon the best boyfriend material, but that didn’t matter. It was hard to say he was the best when there wasn’t much to compare him to, which was essentially exactly what Ushas was thinking as well.

For all their conversations about the positives and the negatives, the only conclusion that Ushas could come to was that none of them were really boyfriend material. Not in their eyes, at least. They would always be incredible friends, but she probably wouldn’t end up dating any of them. (She kept that ‘probably’ in mind, because nobody can predict what the future holds, but was still pretty sure of her answer.)

“So,” she said, “I think I can safely say that we’re not going to rank them like we were planning to, yeah?”

Millennia nodded. “It’s really probably best that we just think of them as they are; our ridiculous, annoying, wonderful friends. Maybe they could be more than that, but I don’t think there’s a point in discussing it unless something really happens, you know what I mean?”

And, even though Ushas was not always one for cheesy or sentimental relationships, she did.

Chapter Text

“Personally, I think it’s getting a tad bit unruly, but it’s not downright horrible.”

Mortimus rolled his eyes and gave Ushas a look. “It is absolutely downright horrible. Are we not looking at the same thing? It’s so bad that I can hardly even look at it. I can’t believe that you’re telling the truth right now.”

“Obviously I’m telling the truth,” she snapped. “I’m not going to lie about something as trivial as this. What would even be the point? I think it’s okay. Just not when it’s hanging out completely a mess. When it’s pulled back into a bun, however, it’s okay. Not like, sexy okay, but okay.”

Magnus—who was hidden half beneath his arms with his head ducked onto his desk—groaned loudly. “I can’t believe we’re actually talking about this right now,” he huffed. “It’s my fucking hair. How is this possibly a relevant topic of conversation? It’s literally nobody’s business but my own and yet you’re all acting like it’s somehow your problem. Why do you even care? Who cares what I look like?”

“I do,” said Mortimus. He whipped around to look at his roommate. “I have to look at it all the time, dumbass, so I have an opinion on what it looks like. Do you have a problem with that? Would you rather I talk about your… dammit, why do you have to be so attractive minus your hair?”

“I’m not even comfortable responding to that question.” He sighed and pulled his head out from beneath his arms. “Look, I like these meetings as much as the next guy, but at a certain point, these things get intolerable. I mean, are we literally talking about my hair right now? You’re all debating whether I need a haircut without even my permission. It’s ridiculous. You lot need to get some hobbies.”

In response, most people were silent. Mortimus rolled his eyes again and turned around in his seat, while Ushas looked down at the floor, her eyes flickering back and forth as if she was thinking of something that she wasn’t quite ready to voice. Because no one else spoke right away, Magnus decided to go on.

“Honestly. Especially you, Mortimus. You’ve been bitching for weeks that you haven’t got anything to do. You must’ve tried forty-seven hobbies and you hated them all. What was the most recent one? Knitting?”

Mortimus’s face flushed bright red. “For the record, I’m still learning how to do that. I’m really shit at it right now, so I might not even go through with it. I haven’t really decided yet.”

“Shut up.” Ushas held up a finger, forcing the entire group to go silent. She stayed quiet herself for a few more seconds, before finally lifting her head, her brown eyes wide. “I’ve just got a brilliant idea. Next week, instead of babbling on about bullshit as Magnus pointed out, we’re going to discuss some things to do with homework. That’s right. I am going to give you homework. And don’t get pissed off because it’s not a test, it’s an idea. At some point during the next week, we all have to find and pursue a new hobby.”

What?” Out of the group, Drax and Rallon looked the most horrified, though Drax was the one to actually speak—his jaw quite literally dropped. “We’re not going to get new hobbies, Ushas. It’s just not happening. I really don’t think any of us want to do this. Plus, you know us! We’re going to just screw around and not actually do anything anyway. In fact, we’ll probably all come in here next week and lie our asses off about what we did.”

She sighed. “I guess you’re right. It’s really doubtful that you lot will tell me the truth. So… maybe you could all bring in something to show that you actually put in the effort? Like, a drawing, a photograph, a high-tech invention… anything that could prove that you haven’t just been sitting around all week.”

“I think it sounds like fun,” said Mortimus. “Plus, if you’re all getting new hobbies too, then maybe it would help me keep on track in finding one of my own. I say we go for it.”

“No. No, no, no.” Rallon waved his hands around in the air dramatically, successfully collecting the attention of all his friends. “I am taking thirteen classes this semester. Thirteen. You think I have time for a hobby? There’s a reason that I never do anything except for this and homework, Ushas! I don’t have time to have a life outside of my classes!”

“Well, maybe it’s time you found some time,” Theta suggested. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? You slip in a couple of classes? Big deal. You’ll find something fun to do that you might stay interested in for the rest of your life. I say it’s a win-win either way.”

“It’s a win lose,” he snapped. “You’ve literally just pointed out the fact that I’ll slip in my classes. I can’t slip in my classes. Last time I slipped, I failed, and I am not going to fail again.”

“That was one class,” said Vansell, “like fifteen years ago. Are you ever going to get over it?”

“No. No, I am not, because retaking that class took up far too much of my time, and wasted my time working on homework when I should have been making progress on my other classes.”

“Okay, just calm down, sweetie.” Millennia reached over and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Nobody is forcing you to get a hobby, we just think that it would be fun, and honestly, it would be. If you take up something simple and thoughtless, it could even be really relaxing. You should go for it. Please?”

So, even though every ounce of his conscious being was saying ‘no’, Rallon said ‘yes’. Because, for some reason, he couldn’t say ‘no’ to Millennia.

//

“So, obviously I’m going to do the knitting,” said Mortimus, as he and Magnus walked out of the classroom several minutes later. Magnus was staring down at his phone, obviously not giving two shits about what Mortimus had to say, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I’m probably going to be pretty bad at it, but I think it’s going to be fun. What about you? What are you going to do?”

“Nothing. I am going to do nothing.”

“Wow, okay. Like, meditating? Or that thing where you just lie down with your face and ears covered and block out the entire world? Because I think that’s admirable, but I don’t think I could be left alone with my thoughts for that long. I’d probably drive myself insane.”

“Are you implying that you’re not already insane?” asked Magnus. His tone was perfectly stable, as if he truly believed what he was saying. “And no, I’m not going to meditate or do whatever freaky kink you just described. I’m not going to get a hobby because it’s a waste of my fucking time. I only even suggested that you get a hobby because I wanted to be left alone.”

“That’s not even funny. You seriously started this just to get rid of me?”

“No,” he answered sarcastically, “I suddenly like you and want you to bitch at me all day.”

Mortimus opened his mouth to respond, but quickly realized that it was pointless, and turned around to walk the other direction—as far away from his roommate as he could get.

//

“I’ve looked through about a hundred books at this point and I can honestly say that I’m interested in none of this.”

Koschei threw the book he was holding across the room, then flopped back onto the floor when it smashed into the floor. He’d been trying unsuccessfully for hours to find a hobby that he was actually interested in pursuing, but he found nothing. There was no activity that he thought sounded like fun, and he knew that if it wasn’t fun, he wouldn’t stick to it. So, two books of hobbies later, he gave up his search. It just wasn’t worth it.

“It just isn’t worth it,” he sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’s none of these things. In fact, I’m starting to think that it might work best to not do any of these things at all. I mean, Ushas can’t actually be expecting us to do what she wants, right? We never do what she wants, so it’s kind of unreasonable to expect that of us. Right? Or am I wrong? No. I’m right. Right.”

“I literally don’t care,” said Theta. He was sitting down at his desk on the other side of the room, working away at some homework assignment. “Now can you just stop complaining and do something that’s actually productive? It’s pretty obvious that you’re not actually going to do this shit anyway.”

“But I might though. You don’t know what I am or am not going to do.”

“Yes, I do. And you’re not going to do anything.”

Koschei groaned. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“Of course, I’m right.”

//

“So, are you actually going to pick up a new hobby for this thing?”

Drax was lying down on his bed, throwing an old ball up in the air and catching it once it fell back down again. He repeated the motion over and over, not turning to look at Jelpax while he waited for a response.

“No.” Jelpax shook his head. He was lying on his own bed, but was propped up against the pillows, reading some novel that Drax had never heard of. “I already have a hobby, so I don’t see why I’d need to get another one. And before you ask, my hobby is reading. Which is absolutely valid.”

“Is it?” He dropped the ball into one hand and rolled over, propping himself up on his elbow. “What do you think you’re going to show at next week’s meeting? It’s not like you can just bring a book and be like, ‘I did it, Ushas, I brought a fucking book’. She’s not going to know if you read it or not, dumbass.”

“Why wouldn’t she believe me? She knows that I read all the time, and I’m making a list of books I read between now and then, so I have at least something more to show.”

“You think that she’s going to accept that as being enough to show?” Drax rolled his eyes. “She’s going to want to see something that takes like, a hundred hours of work to make. Like, a perfect painting, or an entire finished novel. I don’t even know.”

“Well, if she’s expecting something unreasonable anyway,” he said, giving his roommate a look, “why should I bother anyway? It’s better to just disappoint her. Honestly, that’s probably more like what she’s actually expecting.”

He shrugged. “You have a point. Plus, I was already going to disappoint her anyway, so we might as well team up and make it a double.”

“That mean you’re not taking place in this either?”

“No, of course not,” Drax scoffed. “I already have a hobby too. I’m an engineer. And I’m not going to bring something to her to prove that I did some shitty assignment. It’s not like she’s actually a professor, she just stands up there at the front of our meetings for some reason. She knows she’s not the leader, right?”

“I don’t think she realizes that there’s not a leader.” Jelpax sighed and clapped his book shut, then set the book on top of his nightstand. “So, you’re just sticking with engineering then?”

“No point in picking up something I don’t even want to do.”

“You have a good point there. I mean, what could go wrong if we don’t do anything?”

//

The week came and went quickly, and before they knew it, it was already time for the next meeting. As per usual, everyone arrived a few minutes late and settled into their seats long after Ushas was ready to start the meeting. She smiled at each one of them as they walked in, most likely expecting them to all have something to show for their work. Of course, because they were carrying their bags, she couldn’t tell at first glance who had and had not brought something, so she kept her hopes up.

“Okay,” she said, once everyone was sitting down, “good morning, my fellow Deca members! As you all know, we started a new project last week, where we were all supposed to start new hobbies. Some of you seemed rather happy about that idea, so I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve all done with it. So, can I get a show of hands to see how many of you brought something to show the group today?”

Ushas face dropped like a brick when exactly zero of her friends raised their hands.

For what felt like the longest moment, her expression stayed exactly like that—frozen in a state of bitter disappointment. Then, slowly, it twisted into an expression of rage. Her fingers clenched into tight fists, her eyes twitching in anger. Everyone else went dead silent, none of them wanting to be the person to speak, and therefore become the recipient of her pissed off screaming fest. As none of them were stupid enough to give up the feat, she ended up being the first one to talk.

“I can’t believe that none of you even tried to do this,” she said, her voice dripping with venom. As she went on, she paced up and down the rows of chairs, getting as close to her friends as she could without touching them. “All I wanted was for us to do something fun. Maybe I mislabeled it as an assignment, when I should have just said it was an activity, but I still can’t believe that you did this to me. If you really cared about the Deca, you’d have at least brought something, and yet you didn’t. None of you did.”

She paused for a dramatic silence, during which you could have heard a pin drop. When she stopped walking, Ushas landed right beside Mortimus, who stared straight ahead of him—as if looking at her would somehow condemn him to a horrible fate. He held his breath until she walked away, her footsteps clattering across the floor as she paced back to the front of the room. When she reached Borusa’s desk, she came to a halt and leaned back against it, crossing her arms against her chest.

“What I find absolutely hilarious,” she said, “is that I was expecting some of you not to do it. Drax, Jelpax, Magnus, Vansell… even Rallon I thought would just forget. And I was prepared to let that go. I was absolutely ready to hear about your failures and consequently forgive you. Even for Theta and Koschei, who I assumed would just pull a half-finished piece of shit out of their asses. But now you’ve all disappointed me. And because you’ve all disappointed me, we’re going try this again this week. And when we meet back here next week, you will have something to show me. Anyone care to ask me what will happen if you don’t? Mortimus?”

Mortimus, who was slid halfway down his seat in terror, swallowed hard. “I—uh— what will happen if we don’t, ma’am?”

“I will walk into each and every one of your least favorite classes, such as temporal theory—” she glanced over at Drax “—Gallifreyan—” then over to Theta “—and whatever level of maths you’re in.” Finally, she glanced back to Mortimus, who was just about ready to die. “Then I will request that our professors give us all a surprise pop quiz in order to further our learning. None of us, including me, will know when the tests will take place, but I will be the only one who has studied. You will not know which professors I have spoken to, or which ones have agreed, forcing you all to work your asses off on preparation for what is a potentially non-existent test. Do you understand?”

Instead of verbalizing their horrified answers, they all simply nodded.

//

“Okay, so I just loop this through there, pull this around here, and—ow!”

Magnus glanced over his shoulder when he heard Mortimus exclaim, then snorted upon seeing the shallow wound on his wrist. “You know, I had my doubts about you pulling this off, but I think that you’ve followed the directions really well. Of course, I’m fairly certain that you’re not supposed to stab yourself in the hand.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, mate.” Mortimus groaned as he wiped the blood off his knitting needle, reaching over to grab a bandage from the top drawer in his bedside table. “I’ve pretty much figured that out, though. Normally you’re not supposed to get hurt when you’re doing things that are fun, unless that’s just my understanding of things.”

“What do you mean, ‘your understanding of things’? Do you literally think that other people enjoy getting hurt for fun?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know. People have weird kinks.”

“For the love of god, Mortimus. That is not something that I needed anyone to say to me today. No, not just today. Ever.”

“Like you’re not one of them. You’re just being awkward about it because you don’t want anyone to know.”

The comment was enough to turn Magnus back to his homework. Although him and Mortimus weren’t exactly enemies, they’d never really gotten along that well, and clearly it was for good reason. For all he tried on rare occasions, Magnus couldn’t recall a single time when he and Mortimus had a conversation that was actually good or had made it all the way to the end without one or both of them quitting on it prematurely. Of course, as just happened, it was usually due to Mortimus saying something ridiculously creepy and Magnus ducking out. However, it was also occasionally because of Magnus saying something really rude and Mortimus getting annoyed or offended and flipping him off before running away from the discussion.

Needless to say, neither of them were particularly favorable for people who were attempting to be friends (or at least, acquaintances—Magnus had basically accepted by then that they were never actually going to get along perfectly, no matter what good it would do for the Deca or their lives in general).

“Okay, time to try this again.”

Aside from his creepy comments, the thing that annoyed Magnus the most about his roommate was his ridiculous need to talk about everything that he was doing while he was doing it. There was something about the way that he talked—not just the fact that he was talking at all—that irked him to his very core, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t tune it out. Even loud music through headphones weren’t enough to distract him from Mortimus’s intolerable babbles.

“Take this loop, pull this there, twist—wait, I don’t think I’m supposed to be using my fingers to do this.” Mortimus glanced down at the book beside him again, then frowned and scratched the side of his head—yarn still tangled in his fingers—upon reading it. “Nope. Well, that would explain what the needles are for. I thought they were just for… well, I don’t really know, but I was hoping that I would be able to get rid of them. That would have stopped me from stabbing myself.”

Even though he didn’t hate Mortimus, there was a small part of Magnus that hoped his roommate would stab himself, if only to get him out of the room for a few minutes.

//

“So, are you actually looking for a hobby now?”

Koschei shook his head. He was holding a bag in one hand and rifling through it in the other. “No, I’ve already decided on one. I found a list of them and just flipped coins until I decided which one would be the best. Or rather, fate decided which one was going to be the best. Now I’ve just got to learn how to do this.”

“Learn how to do what?”

Rather than searching for a brand-new hobby to try, Theta was just picking up something he’d been doing for many years—painting. He was halfway through a project by then and was planning to have it ready by the time that they were all showing them off. Although a small part of him wanted to piss off Ushas even more, Theta was terrified of getting a pop quiz in one of his worst classes and didn’t want to risk having it happen. When Koschei spoke, he turned around to look at him, raising a single eyebrow when he saw what his roommate was pursuing.

“Are you playing with a yo-yo?” he asked, his eyes widened in both confusion and curiosity.

Theta nodded. “Yes. Do you have a problem with that? Because, if so, I’d be happy to pursue something else. I’m not joking. I have some other ideas in mind. Like, glamping, stamp collecting, pogoing…”

“Did you seriously just suggest that it would be a good idea to go glamping? You can’t demonstrate glamping, Kos.”

“So, then you’d be happier with me doing yo-yoing, then? Because I really think that’s what I’m going to go with. I mean, it can’t possibly be that difficult, can it? The instructions in this free pamphlet I picked up make it look pretty simple. After all, how hard could it be? Not as hard as collecting stamps, I guarantee.”

“Right, because it’s not possible to find that many stamps before next week.” He made a face. “Unless you decided to like, steal them from a Scendel or something. Wait, no, that’s a terrible idea. Ceruleans are more likely to have stamps. I think that Scendels are too stupid to even think to collect them. If anything, they probably collect, like, litter or something.”

Koschei’s face twisted into one of the most disgusting expressions he’d ever seen. “What?”

“What? I don’t mean used litter.”

There was not a single bone in Koschei’s body that thought the addition made the comment any less weird.

//

“I almost thought that this was going to be a bad idea, but I’m really enjoying myself now.”

Drax was sitting at his desk in his dorm room, tinkering away at something with tools that Jelpax didn’t care to recognize. He had goggles pulled down over his eyes to protect them, his fingers ironically open for anything to spark.

“There really was a small part of me that figured this would be a complete waste of time,” he went on, pausing to hold a screwdriver in his mouth, “but really, it’s just fun. Even if the point is to make Ushas happy. Well, that and saving us from pop quiz hell, I suppose.”

While there was a large part of Jelpax that loved talking to Drax and hearing him talk, that part was entirely irrelevant when he was reading. He loved Drax, and he always had (mostly), and he always will (almost definitely), but there was absolutely nobody who was allowed to speak to him when he was nearing the climax of a novel. Especially not when it was one of the greatest novels of all time—one that he had been on the waiting list for months to finally read.

“Pop quizzes really aren’t that bad, Drax.” Jelpax didn’t look up from his book, speaking only when he turned the page. “If you actually study, you’ll pass. I’ve never failed one in my life.”

“I’ve failed like, every one in my life.” Rather than disappointed or pissed off, Drax’s tone was perfectly matter of fact, as if he he’d finally accepted the fact that he was failing everything.

“Yeah, that’s because you don’t study. Ever. Were you not listening to what I just said, you dolt?”

“Hey!” Drax spun around in his chair and pointed the screwdriver at him. “I do too study sometimes. Just not as often as I should. Or even close to as much as I should. Do most people study every week?”

“Scendels? No.” Jelpax shook his head, frowning slightly. “But Prydonians? Most of us study every single day, not just every week. You might want to plot out a routine.”

The laugh that Drax let out was one of the most genuine that Jelpax had ever heard from him. For once, he didn’t have a sarcastic reaction to the comment, or a lame ‘ha’, but a reaction that basically said everything that Drax went on to say anyway.

“You are absolutely hilarious. You’re actually suggesting that I try to study? Not just study, but study well? That’s just laughable. I mean, really. I can’t even keep myself focused to study when I really try to, let alone attempting to study once a day. How much time do you think I have on my hands?”

“Well, you’ve been working on that thing for about three hours now,” said Jelpax blankly, “so I’m thinking you have a significant amount of free time when you’re not out and about pranking our professors and peers just for the hell of it.”

“Bold of you to assume it’s just for the hell of it,” he retorted. “I often do it for revenge, or to confuse our professors before they hand out a difficult assignment. Don’t think that what I do is all just for fun.”

“But it’s all fun anyway, yeah?”

Jelpax knew the answer even though Drax didn’t respond.

//

“Yeah, it was a really bad idea, I think. I just thought that it might be a fun thing to try, you know? But obviously I’ve realized by now that it’s a completely impossible task for an idiot like me.”

“Oh, you’re not an idiot,” said the nurse, as she bandaged up the last wound on his palm. “I mean, you’re far from the smartest student that’s come through here, but it’s not because you’re an idiot. It’s just because you… lack a level of awareness that most people are just born with.”

Mortimus blinked. “I don’t really know what that means,” he admitted, “but thanks for reassuring me that I’m not as stupid as I think. People say mean things to me a lot and it’s kind of rude.”

“I understand.” She smiled at him, then took a step back and sat down on her stool. “Now, is there any chance that you’ve been working on another hobby as well?”

“No.” He shook his head, furrowing his brow as he tried to work out for himself where she got that idea from. “Why? Wondering if I’ve got something safer? I’m happy to take suggestions. I’ve only got a few days to figure out something that’ll work before I have to show off to my friends.”

“No, no, it’s not that. I was just wondering about the bruises on your arms and knuckles. Have you gotten into any fights recently or anything? Or is this just another ridiculous hobby?”

“Hey! Knitting isn’t ridiculous, and I’m fairly certain that you’re not legally allowed to ask me about how I got my injuries.”

“This is off the record,” she said, “and to be honest, I’m only asking because you’re the one student who never fails to tell me what happened. It’s like you were born a little chatterbox.”

Mortimus shrugged awkwardly. “I do talk a lot.”

“Yes, you do. But you’re avoiding the question I asked about your arms. I’m not asking you to tell me everything, Mortimus, I just want to know if everything is all right. I don’t want to see you in here more than I already do. If you need me to give you some painkillers or something, I’d be happy to—”

“No, that’s okay. I don’t need anything. It’s fine, really. I don’t even know where they come from. Are you done with my hands now? Did you put the padding in like I asked?”

The nurse nodded. “Yes, although I’ll admit that I’m not really sure what you wanted them for.”

“Oh. Well, I’m going to try knitting again, obviously,” said Mortimus. He’d gone from serious back to goofy in a second, throwing the nurse completely for a loop. She frowned and crossed her arms when he revealed his plans, clearly dissatisfied with his answer. “I’m not going to quit just because I stabbed myself in the hand a few times, you know what I mean? So, I’m going to just do my best, even if I lose a finger or two.”

“Please don’t lose a finger or two. I don’t want to have to reattach those.”

“No promises, ma’am.”

Mortimus hopped off the bed, throwing her one last charming smile before he swaggered out of the room.

//

“I know I can get this,” said Koschei. He was in the middle of his fifty-third attempt at a trick, hoping that he could finally pull a successful trick and not get himself twisted up in the string when he did it. “Okay, here we go. One… two… three… ow!”

Theta, though he wasn’t watching, laughed when he heard Koschei cry out. He was still working on his own project—the painting which was nearing completion. A small part of him felt bad for not being more involved in Koschei’s attempt to pursue a new hobby, but he was too busy finishing his painting to be bothered trying to coach Koschei through a ridiculous skill.

“Did you hit yourself in the tooth again?” asked Theta, as he rinsed one of his brushes in a cup of water.

Koschei nodded, one hand clinging to his face and the other still holding onto his yo-yo. “And the eye!”

He retreated into their restroom to rinse his face, leaving Theta on his own to continue working in silence. It was much easier to paint when there was no one around making noise, he had to admit, though he did like the company sometimes. Ever since he could remember, Theta had been an artist, and while he enjoyed the occasional quiet time, he’d produced much of his best work in the presence of his friends. In fact, his favorite piece was drawn during a Deca meeting, while several of his friends were bitching at each other.

For some reason, the noise and the drama were inspiring to him, and drawing helped him focus, making it into a win-win situation. He often doodled in class as well, though many of his professors didn’t like it, because he was far better at listening when he had something to do with his hands. Azmael was one of the only professors who completely accepted his need for pencils, contributing to the fact that he was Theta’s absolute favorite professor.

“Okay,” said Koschei, after he walked out of the restroom a few minutes later. “I think I’m ready to try this again. And this time, I’m going to do it for real. Here we go.”

He wound up his yo-yo, shook himself off to prepare for the trick, took a deep breath, and spun it. Finally, after ages of trying to get it to work, Koschei did it. He didn’t just succeed in completing the ridiculous stunt, he excelled at it—not even tripping once in his ridiculous attempt to become a master at yo-yoing.

“I did it!” he cried, a grin breaking out on to his face. “I did it! I actually did it!”

Theta smiled and turned around to look at him. “Me too! I’ve been working on it for a while now, but I think I’ve finally done it. What do you think? Should I add more details?”

“Well, I don’t know much about art, but based on what I’ve seen you produce in the past, I’m assuming that you—holy mother of god!”

Koschei gasped when he laid eyes on Theta’s possibly finished painting, his jaw dropping lower than his eyes opened wide. He stayed like that for either several seconds or several minutes—he was too far in shock to know which. Theta, on the other hand, was incredibly confused, unsure of whether he’d painted something horrible or something beautiful. He’d never seen his friend stay so frozen for so long, and couldn’t tell what exactly the reaction was, except that he was in some kind of shock.

“Were you planning to say something sometime this week, or would you rather just stand there ‘til you shit yourself?”

Suddenly, he blinked back to reality, shaking his head to bring himself back down to Gallifrey. “Okay, what is it with you and those jokes today?” he said disgustedly, frowning as he registered exactly what Theta had said. Then, before he could elaborate more on his comment, his eyes wandered over to the painting and he got himself back on track. “I give up.”

“You give up what?” asked Theta.

“I give up on this stupid yo-yo.” He threw the yo-yo down onto the floor, sighing dramatically as he did so. “Your painting is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and nothing I do will ever be anywhere near the same level as it. I may as well just show up to the meeting with nothing again.”

“And risk getting a pop quiz? Not worth it, Kos, but thank you for the compliment on my painting. Though, I’m really thinking of adding more shadows.”

“You know that I’m an actual idiot when it comes to art, so I won’t tell you what to do or not to do, but I trust whatever you say. So yeah, add more shadows if you want. You’re still going to have the best thing at our meeting next week regardless, though. I mean, god that thing is nice.”

“Again, thank you,” said Theta awkwardly, “but it really doesn’t matter who has the nicest thing as long as we all have something to present to Ushas.”

“That’s what you think,” Koschei muttered.

//

“Is that like, the fourth book you’ve read this evening?” asked Drax. He was still focused on whatever project he was working on but was still somehow attentive to his best friend. “I mean, I know that you love reading, but oh, my god. Don’t your eyes want to like, fall out of your head by now?”

“Reading is not going to make my eyes fall out of my head,” said Jelpax, rolling his eyes. “And no, this is actually the fifth book I’ve read this evening. I’m getting rather good at that speed-reading stuff they’ve been talking about in Gallifreyan.”

“You’re becoming a speed reader? Wow, you just want to rub it in my face that you’re better at studying than me, yeah?”

He snorted and shook his head. “I wouldn’t rub it in your face that you don’t study, you idiot. It’s not like that’s exactly something to brag about. But I would be happy to gloat about being better at this than you if you actually put some effort into the class once in a while.”

“Me? Put effort into a class? That’s hilarious. I—shit!” Drax cut himself off when he shocked his hand, then whipped his hand back and shook it several times as he tried to stop the worst of the stinging. “Goddammit.”

When he first shocked himself, Jelpax wasn’t too concerned about his friend. Both he and Drax were well aware that there was a certain occupational hazard involved when it came to engineering, and it wasn’t often that he did anything to himself that was worse than a minor burn or a temporary shock. So naturally, Jelpax assumed that it was nothing major. But then Drax went completely silent, ignoring the rest of their conversation, and dropped his head down onto his desk, holding his injured hand in his other gently.

For the first time since he sat down that evening, Jelpax closed his book and stood up out of his bed, then walked over to Drax’s desk and stopped at his side. He laid a hand on his shoulder, hoping that Drax would look up at him with any sort of reassuring glance, but he didn’t. He kept his head lying flat on his desk, his breathing echoing against the hard wood, and fogging up its surface.

“Are you okay?” asked Jelpax, the concern not light in his tone.

He shook his head, his forehead still pressed against the desk. When he spoke, his voice was slightly muffled by the fact that he was still staring downward. “That hurt like a motherfucker.”

“Do you want me to look at it?”

“No.”

“Do you want the nurse to look at it?”

“No.”

Jelpax sighed and leaned back against the desk, crossing his arms and giving the back of Drax’s head a look as he did so. “Drax, are you sure that you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” he insisted, still refusing to sit up. “What’s the worst that could’ve happened?”

“You once gave yourself a third-degree burn when you fucked up a project. It was horrible. You cried like the entire time the nurse was taking care of it.”

“I was fourteen, jackass. I didn’t understand what it meant yet.”

“But you understood what pain was, yeah?”

“Really?” Drax finally lifted his head up, if only to roll his eyes at his friend. “You really are the worst, Pax.”

“And you really are an idiot, Drax.”

//

Watching Mortimus try to knit was like watching someone cut a fruit with the knife pointed towards their hands.

Every second that Magnus watched Mortimus was another second that he prepared himself for their inevitable visit to the nurse’s office. For some reason, Mortimus couldn’t seem to keep the needles down; instead holding them facing himself, constantly jerking them fast enough to barely miss stabbing himself straight through the palm (something that Magnus knew was likely, as he’d already nicked himself a few times since starting).

“Sorry, but I just have to say that this is fucking painful to watch,” said Magnus, not a hint of true regret coming out in his tone. The look on his face was almost disgusted, as if he were watching someone burn his dinner. “Every second that you’re holding that is like one second closer to death. You know, they can’t actually heal your hand once you’ve already bled to death, yeah?”

Mortimus dropped his hands, string, and needles into his lap, giving his roommate a narrowed side-eye. “Yeah, obviously,” he said, rolling his eyes. “And for the record, you’re kind of an asshole.”

“I know. And you’re kind of an idiot. It’s just who we were born to be.”

“Well, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

Magnus simple nodded, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his chair. “Look, Mortimus, I just think that it would benefit the all of us if you would just stop it and go pick up another hobby. Maybe something much easier and less dangerous, like coin collecting! Or you could get some of those training needles, the ones that are made out of dull plastic instead of glorified knives.”

“No.” Mortimus grabbed one of his needles—or rather, both of them with some yarn in between—and stabbed it in Magnus’s direction. “If I’m going to learn how to do this, I’m going to learn how to do it the right way. Not with stupid little time tot needles and cushy little yarn.”

“I didn’t actually suggest the cushy little yarn, but okay. I actually think that your yarn is already gay enough. I mean, are you literally knitting something pink right now?”

“Hey! It’s faded salmon!”

The sigh that emitted from Magnus’s lips was one of the loudest and most dramatic sighs he had ever sighed. Although Mortimus’s comment was rather stupid, it was not the stupidest thing he had ever heard. But still, he found himself unable to find an appropriate response, and decided to let Mortimus’s ridiculous comeback go.

“I don’t care what color it is,” said Magnus. “Just please, do something to fix your work techniques, or I guarantee you’re going to stab yourself in the hand, and it is not going to be pretty.”

“On the contrary, blood is rather aesthetically pleasing in the right situations.”

“I don’t know what kind of fucked up situations you’re referring to right now, but I guarantee that blood is not going to be ‘aesthetically pleasing’ as it’s oozing out of your hand. In fact, it’s probably going to be rather terrifying, so I wouldn’t brag too much about it in advance.”

Mortimus glared at him. “On the off chance that I actually do stab these needles through my hands, I promise you that it’ll be beautiful. Like, a flowing red river. Or something like that.”

“To be completely and utterly honest, I don’t even know where to start with that comment.”

So, instead of trying to think about it any harder, Magnus chose to give up and spun his chair back around to face his homework; leaving Mortimus alone to continue work on his dangerous hobby.

//

“Hey.”

The voice broke Koschei out of his vibe completely, causing him to lose his focus on the yo-yo and fling it into his own nose. He cried out when it slammed into his face, stumbling backwards as he threw his hands up to cover his injured area.

“Oh, god. Ow,” he cried. “That hurt. Not that bad, but the plastic really punched my nose on its way back down. Ow.”

Millennia knelt down to pick up his yo-yo, then stood up and handed it back over to him when he lowered his hands. He took it out of her palm, smiling appreciatively before he pocketed it.

“Are you all right?” asked Millennia, her tone genuinely concerned. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just didn’t expect to find out here and I thought I might stop by to say ‘hi’.”

“Oh, well in that case, hi. Sorry about the big scene. It really didn’t even hurt that much; it just took me by surprise.”

“Yeah? Well, so did you. I can’t remember the last time that I saw you outside of the Academy on your own. Especially during a nice day like this. Normally you only wander around the grounds when it’s positively storming out.”

Koschei shrugged awkwardly, and gently kicked the grass beneath his feet. “Yeah, well, I had to get away from Theta for a bit. We were both practicing our hobbies and whatever and he was just doing so much better than me that it actually became rather discouraging. It really wasn’t a good environment for me to be working in, you know? Not that I’m mad at him, of course. I just…”

“Have a problem with not being the best?” Millennia suggested. “I think you’re all right, Koschei. Theta might be really good at whatever he’s doing, but I’m pretty sure he’ll never be able to one-up you when it comes to yo-yoing. You’re yo-yoing, right?” Her friend nodded. “Right. Well, no offense, but that’s a rather weird hobby. Did you mean to pick a weird hobby?”

“A little bit. I wanted to pick something out of the ordinary to piss off Ushas, and thought I’d choose something that sounded fun as well. Turns out, yo-yos are a blast so long as you’re not hitting yourself in the tooth. Or the eye. Or the nose. Huh. I guess the list really has been growing.” Koschei made a face. “Anyway, do you know what you’re going to do? We’ve only got a few days to practice.”

“Oh, it’s fine. I don’t really need to practice. I’m just doing something I haven’t done in a while. I really haven’t got the time to be trying to start something completely new this week. That’s why I slacked off last week as well, though I did think that the whole hobby thing sounded like fun.”

“That makes sense.” He nodded. “So, I guess I’ll see you later, then? Not to shoo you away, but I haven’t got a lot of time to work on this, and I’m kind of shit at it right now, so…”

“No problem.” Millennia smiled. “Good luck on your yo-yoing, Koschei.”

“And good luck on your… secret project, Millennia.”

She turned around to leave, continuing on her way into the woods to finish her homework assignment. Then, just before she rounded a large block of trees, Millennia heard Koschei cry out, and she whipped around to check on him. She ran back to where he was, slowing to a halt when she saw that he was just standing there silently, his face twisted in pain.

“Are you all right?” she asked. “Get yourself in the tooth and the eye again? Or the nose?”

He shook his head. “Adding another thing to the list now. Bit closer to the nether regions.”

Millennia didn’t have to guess to know what he was talking about when he dropped down to his knees and placed his head down against the dirt, his eyes closed tightly in pain.

//

The next week came and went much slower than the first one. Not because time physically moved slow for some reason, of course, but because they spent so much time working on their hobbies that it began to drag—especially for people like Koschei, who were attempting the same thing over and over again (in his case, with mainly disastrous results).

For once, almost everyone in the Deca managed to show up on time, each of them arriving several minutes before the meeting was meant to start. Except for one, Ushas, who didn’t walk into the room until the clock struck go-time (and not a second later). She strode into the room with her hands held behind her back, her hair swishing behind her as he shoes clacked against the tile floor. Almost everyone glanced up at him when she arrived, her smug smile stealing the attention of the room.

“I trust you’ve all done your work?” said Ushas, still grinning evilly. “If not, I’ll let you all know that I’ve got my notes written out to your professors, and I’m more than happy to send them out today. So, anyone willing to step up and say they haven’t done their work?”

To her complete and utter surprise and delight, not a single person in the room spoke nor raised their hand, implying that they had all done at least something to share with the group. She wasn’t sure what it might be yet but hoped that they’d at least chosen real hobbies and nothing stupid or half-assed (which she, honestly, kind of expected from most of them). However, despite her own enthusiasm, Ushas’s friends did not seem thrilled to show her what they’d come up with.

“So, who wants to present what they’ve done?” she asked, the grin still not falling from her face. Despite her own enthusiasm, not a single one of her friends stepped up to the plate. “Are you kidding me right now? Not even one of you, after all the work I hope you’ve done, wants to show off what they’ve prepared?”

Mortimus raised his hand slowly. “I don’t want to go first,” he said quietly, when Ushas pointed at him, “but can I ask you to please stop smiling? Because it’s starting to freak me out. Really bad.”

“Idiot.” Ushas rolled her eyes, finally dropping the terrifying grin in honor of an annoyed glare. “Look, if none of you volunteer to do something, then I’m going to have to start calling on you one by one. And believe me, you do not want me to call on you one by one.”

“What’ll happen if you do that?” Koschei queried.

“You don’t want to know what’ll happen if I do that. Just offer to do something. Please. Any of you.”

In an unlikely turn of events, Rallon was the first person to stand up. He looked quite uncomfortable doing so, especially when Ushas smiled and gestured for him to head to the front of the room. Rallon tugged at his collar as he paced up to the desk, glancing over at Millennia for reassurance as he did so. He turned his gaze over to Ushas quickly too, when she sat down in the front row, then swallowed hard and faced the rest of the group.

“All right,” he began, his voice wavering, “I’ve got to be honest now. I’m not up here because I have something incredible to present. I’m actually up here because I, busy with all my ridiculous classes, was unable to complete the task. So, I’m going to do a bit of improv now and demonstrate some skills I attempted to practice over the last week. Apologies if this is bad, but I’m rather rusty.”

Rallon started his presentation by pulling out a deck of cards, he did a few quick tricks with his hands, then slid them behind his palms—away from the group—and revealed that he was suddenly holding onto a set of small, plastic balls. He showed them around, twisting them and shifting them from side to side as he bragged about his skill, then tossed them into the air and began juggling them. He went for several seconds, tossing them in all kinds of crazy directions and flipping them around, before one of them conked him on the head and effectively called the routine to an end.

After he recovered from his light bonk on the head, Rallon did a quick bow, then scrambled to pick up the balls that had rolled around on the floor. While he was crawling around on his knees, his friends began to clap for him, Millennia even throwing in a few cheers. Ushas nodded approvingly; her brow furrowed as she formulated her opinion.

“Well,” she said eventually, “although you claim to have not put in much work, I’m rather happy with what you’ve done. Good job, Rallon.”

He breathed out a sigh of relief and bowed one more time before he ran off back to his seat. Once he was done, Ushas spun around to face the rest of the group, an expectant look on her face.

“All right, who’s going next? Magnus?”

“No.” Magnus, who had his feet propped up on his desk, gave her a look. “I prepared nothing, but thanks for singling me out. I’m so happy to be the first person on your mind.”

“I appreciate your sarcasm,” said Ushas, rolling her eyes, “and to be quite honest, I expected nothing from you. I only picked you to get it out of the way. On that topic, Drax?”

Drax looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. “Bold of you to assume I haven’t done anything.”

“You hate me, and you don’t even turn in your actual homework. Why would I ever think that you have done anything?”

“Maybe because I have?” He leaned down to the floor beside him and grabbed his backpack, then unzipped it and pulled something out. He placed it onto his desk, the wooden box making a loud clanking sound when he put it down. Slowly, Drax lifted the lid off the box, and pulled out a smaller metal box from inside of it. “Behold! My brand new, state of the art, coin molder.”

“What?” Koschei frowned and leaned in to get a closer look at it, his eyes narrowing as he tried to focus on every intricate detail on the machine. “What does it do?”

“It makes coins look like different things. Like, right now I have it set to my face. So, you put a coin in the top here—” he tossed one in to demonstrate “—then pull on this lever here, and bam! Thirty-five seconds later, we’ll have a coin that no longer has a political figure on it, but my face. I’ll call it, the Drax dollar. Superior to a regular dollar in the form that it has my face on it, but inferior as it no longer has any cash value.”

No one said anything about it right away, all of them watching as he took the coin out a few seconds later. After holding it in his hand for a few seconds, Drax held it out and passed it around the room for everyone to see. They all looked at it for just a few seconds, until it reached Ushas, who spent a considerable amount of time inspecting the coin.

“Well,” she said eventually, “this has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. However, it does work, and I commend you for that. Also, I know that it must really be new because Jelpax looked rather interested in it and if it wasn’t finished last night or this morning, you’d have showed it to him already. So, good job! Who wants to go next? Theta?”

Koschei was the one to shake his head frantically. “No. No, no, no. You don’t want to do that. If anything, Theta should go last because he’s probably going to show us all up.”

“It can’t possibly be any better than my coin molder,” Drax commented. “I mean, that’s brilliant. We could even have Ushas coins if you want.”

“It’s not a competition.”

“Anyway, since you’re being so verbal,” said Ushas, “perhaps you’d like to go next, Koschei? I certainly want to know what you’re pulling out for this.”

For a short second, it looked like Koschei was not going to comply. He nearly ignored her, narrowing his eyes instead of standing up to do anything, but after several long seconds, he finally pulled his yo-yo out of his pocket and wandered up to the front of the classroom. When he reached the front of the room, Koschei glanced around at everyone, then whipped out his yo-yo dramatically, as if he was trying to do a magic trick like Rallon. Unfortunately, he wasn’t practiced in it at all, and instead dropped his yo-yo, un-spinning the entirety of its string. He groaned and gathered it up quickly, overjoyed that none of his friends made fun of him (yet).

After his rough beginning, Koschei managed to pull it back together with his act, nailing most of his tricks. However, he was cut short two moves before the end due to a catastrophic failure on his part, in which he accidentally flung the yo-yo into his ear—therefore learning that there was, in fact, one more place that he could hit himself in.

Once the laughter had died down from Koschei’s part, Ushas sent up Millennia, who did a nice demonstration of something complicated relating to temporal theory. Ushas was fairly certain she was the only person in the room who understood all of it but didn’t say anything to the group. After Millennia, Ushas invited up Jelpax and Vansell respectively, who both presented sheets of paper and sat back down. Jelpax’s being a list of books he’d read over the past week (with short reviews), and Vansell’s being a computer print-out of video game achievements he’d unlocked over the last seven days.

“Mortimus?” said Ushas, once they’d all finished. “Are you ready to present your work?”

He shook his head and slid down in his seat. “Please no. I’ve not finished it yet. But I’d be happy to bring it to next week’s meeting! I’m working on it, I swear.”

“It’s true,” Magnus attested. “It’s been an ugly sight, but he really is putting his best effort into this thing.”

“Thanks, mate.” Mortimus smiled at his roommate, who simply shrugged in response.

Ushas, back in her own seat, rolled her eyes. “All right, whatever. So, I guess that leaves Theta, then. You about ready?”

“I’m always ready,” said Theta, as he reached down to unzip his own bag. “I just didn’t want to embarrass the rest of you lot before you even had a chance to show off.”

He slowly and dramatically lifted a picture frame out of his backpack, unveiling it as epically as he could. He held up the painting for everyone to see once it was fully out, grinning as everyone’s eyes went wide upon seeing his beautiful, almost 3D creation. The sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ filled the room, except from Ushas herself, who was simply staring with her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed against her chest. After everyone had gotten a chance to see, Theta placed the painting back into his bag before bowing far less clumsily than Rallon had before him.

“I’ll take that silence as a compliment,” he announced.

“Don’t get so cocky,” Ushas snapped. Though she acted tough, it was obvious that she was just as impressed as the rest of them were. “Technically, it’s not even possible to compare what you’ve all done, since they’re so different, so… also, I think that I should get some credit for what I did this week. Which is, of course, preparing letters to send out to your professors.”

“Blackmail isn’t a hobby, Ushas,” said Magnus.

Following that comment, for the first time in quite a long while, the Deca launched into a full-blooded debate. And even though Ushas found herself stressed through parts of it, it was fun, and she wondered if she shouldn’t take up debate as an actual hobby.

That would be a worry for another day, though.

//

By the time Mortimus finally admitted defeat and picked up plastic needles, it was already far too late for his hands.

He was staying up late one night, working on his new hobby with only a few lamps lighting up the room. He wasn’t alone, however, as Magnus too was still awake, working on something at his desk. For once, Mortimus was actually staying silent while he worked, and Magnus was almost proud of him for not babbling the entire way through it.

Though he claimed to not care about his roommate, Magnus did keep one eye on Mortimus at almost all times, more than a tiny bit worried that he was going to fuck up and stab another knitting needle into his finger again. Which, by that point, he had few fingers left, and it was becoming quite dangerous for him to risk losing more of them—especially if he wanted to keep trying to knit.

Oblivious to what Magnus was thinking about him, Mortimus was lying down in his bed, propped up against a pile of pillows as he attempted to work on his project in near darkness. He dragged the needle through the yarn, tugged it around, and repeated the process over and over, wincing each time he caught the purple plastic needles on his plasters (which were wrapped around nine of his ten fingers at that point). He worked as diligently as he could, his eyes narrowed slightly as he pushed himself to finish the difficult task he’d started.

Then, when he pulled the needle through one more time, he realized that he’d done it. Finally, after three weeks of hard work, he finished.

Mortimus almost started laughing when he realized, unable to keep the smile off his face. “Oh, my god. I did it. I did it!” he beamed. “Magnus, look! I did it! I made a hat!”

“You what?” Magnus spun around to look at him, almost shocked that he actually managed to finish.

“Well? What do you think of it then?” he asked, as he tugged the beanie onto his head.

“Honestly?” He tilted his head as he thought about his answer. “It looks like shit, my friend.”

And, even though Mortimus was reluctant to admit that his craftsmanship was shoddy, he knew that Magnus was right.

Chapter Text

“I really like Millennia.”

Vansell glanced over at Rallon, who was sprawled out across their floor, staring up at the ceiling as if it were the night sky. “Yeah, I know. Why don’t you just do something about it?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged, the sleeves of his sleep shirt dragging across the light orange carpet. “I guess I just worry that she won’t feel the same way and then our friendship will get super weird and I’ll lose everything that we have. Which is, of course, my absolute worst nightmare.”

For almost as long as he had known Rallon, Vansell knew about his crush on Millennia. It wasn’t something that he was great at keeping secret when they were by themselves, even though he was actually decent at it when they were in the presence of the rest of the group. And for as long as he had known about Rallon’s crush, Vansell knew that Rallon was never going to say anything to her. No matter how much he clearly wanted to, there was something that stopped him from approaching her, which he claimed was the fear of losing her. Of course, that was almost impossible, and Vansell was skeptical as to whether that was the real reasoning behind it.

“You’re not going to lose her,” said Vansell confidently. “You mean just as much to her as she does to you, and there’s literally nothing you could do to lose her.”

“I know that you’re really confident that that’s true, but I can’t take the risk.” Rallon sounded almost disappointed, chewing on his thumbnail lamely. “You know how much she means to me, Van, and I can’t… if there’s even a chance that I could lose her to this, I can’t do it.”

“There’s a bigger chance that she feels the same way, Rallon. And I’m not just saying that. I’ve seen the way she looks at you, and almost the same as you look at her. You’ve got a connection, mate. Don’t ignore it.”

No matter how much Rallon wanted to listen to Vansell, he still couldn’t convince himself to try the risk.

//

“I’m not analyzing anything!” Mortimus insisted. He crossed his arms, pouting his lips in response to the accusation. “I’m just trying to understand the situation better.”

“You are taking verbal notes on my face,” said Koschei. His current expression was nothing short of disgusted, though just moments ago it had been tinged with far different emotions. He, Theta, and Mortimus were sitting at their usual lunch table, the three of them being the only Deca members currently in the room due to the day’s scheduling. “And besides, this conversation is none of your business anyway. It’s me and Theta’s private discussion.”

“Then why are you having it in a public place?” he asked challengingly, narrowing his eyes dramatically. “I think, as soon as it leaves the dormitory—or debatably, even makes its way into the halls of the dormitory—it’s everyone’s business.”

“What? No, that’s not how it works. Nothing is your business just because people are talking about it in a public place. Like, those two are obviously having some kind of heated discussion at the table behind us, but you don’t see me trying to listen in.”

“That’s because they’re just talking about science class. I stopped listening to them like ten minutes ago. You two, however, were talking about some very interesting things. Well, most of it was just bitching and whining, but that’s pretty usual for you two.”

“Wait, what did you just say?” Theta frowned, holding up a hand to ask Mortimus to stop. “Did you just say that it’s normal for us to have conversations that are based on nothing but bitching and whining?”

“Well, yeah. Didn’t you know that?” It was difficult to tell whether Mortimus was being mocking or serious, and it was pissing Koschei off to no end. “I mean, you two and Vansell are like, the three pissiest members of the Deca. Easily. And I know, I know, you’re probably questioning my judgment since I’ve roped Vansell into this, but god can that bloke bitch.”

“No way.” Koschei shook his head aggressively. “We are not the pissiest members in the Deca. Well, maybe Vansell, but not me and Thete! I’ll have you know that we both have an incredibly positive outlook on life, and to say that we spend all of our time complaining is a big fat lie.”

“Are you saying that I’ve gotten something wrong? Because I think it’s widely accepted that anything, I say regarding psychology is right, meaning that you two are automatically discredited based on your opinions, as they’re obviously wrong. Sorry, not sorry.”

He didn’t give Theta and Koschei a chance to fight back before he tossed his bag over his shoulder and strode out of the dining hall, leaving them alone to ponder and bitch about what he said.

//

“I love you…”

…is what Rallon wanted to say when Millennia greeted him that afternoon. However, what he actually ended up saying was some fucked up form of “hi”, which was far more stuttering than it was a greeting. Rallon wasn’t the least bit nervous when talking to Millennia on a normal occasion, but Vansell had shaken him up that morning and he wasn’t quite on his game—especially when it came to his insatiable crush.

And what Rallon followed that up with was far less emotional and lacked the same impact as what he had in his head. In fact, it came out as mostly awkward, as if he was only trying to break the silence.

“I, uh, I like your shoes,” he said, tripping over his words awkwardly. “They’re very nice.”

Millennia blushed and glanced down at her shoes, a smile sliding up her cheeks. “Oh, thank you,” she replied. “They were a gift from my mother.”

“That’s nice.”

Although Rallon wanted to say something else, anything else, he seemed to have forgotten all his words again and froze after his stupid response. It was times such as that when he just knew that Vansell was wrong about the possibility of Millennia returning his feelings. When they acted as friends they got along perfectly well, but as soon as he tried to give her a compliment, everything got awkward. Too awkward. Awkward enough for Rallon to discard any ideas he may or may not have had about telling Millennia how he felt.

“Anyway,” she started, after they spent several seconds walking in silence, “I’d better get to class now. Don’t want to be late.”

“No, of course not.” Rallon rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I’ll see you at dinner later?”

Millennia nodded. “See you then!”

He waited for her to get out of sight before he turned to the corridor wall and banged his head against it lightly, trying to pound out every ounce of stupidity and every memory of his uncomfortable words. He groaned loudly, but not loudly enough to alert anyone walking by, then took a deep breath, attempting to regain his composure (despite his head still being pressed against the wall). Suddenly, a hand landed on his shoulder, and he jerked away from its touch.

“What?” he shouted, almost expecting to see some sort of criminal standing there. Instead, it was just Magnus. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to shout at you, I just wasn’t expecting anyone to come along right now.”

“During these extremely busy hours of the afternoon? No, why would anyone be in the corridor right now?”

Rallon gave him a look. “Do you have to be so sarcastic all the time? It’s really taxing.”

“That’s not my problem.” Magnus tapped a finger in his direction. “Now, you want to tell me why you were banging your head against the wall like an idiot? Trying to break your skull or something?”

“No, obviously not. Who would willingly attempt to break their own skull?”

“Maybe Mortimus.”

For a split second, Rallon stopped to consider whether that was true before realizing that it had nothing to do with anything they were meant to be talking about at the moment. He shook his head to drag himself back down to reality, then crossed his arms as he prepared his next sentence.

“Okay, you really want to know what I was doing?” he said, narrowing his eyes. It was meant to come off as challenging, but instead appeared rather awkward—much like everything else Rallon did. “It has nothing to do with you. So, I’m not going to tell you. But thanks for taking an interest in me for once. Kind of makes me feel like you really care.”

Against his better conscious judgment, Rallon clapped Magnus on the shoulder as he walked by, before starting a cool stride down the corridor. Magnus watched him go, his face scrunched up in an expression that practically said, “What the fuck was that about?”

//

“I’m not even joking. He just randomly complimented my shoes,” Millennia went on. She was chattering at about a thousand miles an hour, going on and on about nothing and everything at the same time. Ushas was only half listening to what she said, mostly occupied with her studies. “I don’t think it really means anything on its own but combined with the things he’s said in the past, like calling me cute and pretty and stuff, I think it might mean something.”

Ushas sighed dramatically and tossed her pen onto the table. They were sitting in the mostly abandoned study hall, at one of the tables in the back where nobody could hear what they were talking about while they worked. Normally it was a relaxing space for Ushas, but that day she wanted nothing more than to run off to the library where babbling wasn’t allowed.

“Millennia, for the love of god, just tell him that you like him,” she said. Her tone wasn’t annoyed, but exasperated, as if she’d hit her very limit. “He absolutely likes you back. There is literally not even a teeny tiny chance that he doesn’t like you. None. And I know that there’s not technically ‘proof’ or whatever you want, but he acts the same around you as you act around him. Just go do something about it!”

“I mean, I really want to,” said Millennia. She twisted a hair tie around her fingers, lost in thought at the idea of actually saying something to Rallon. “But I don’t want to risk anything we already have. I mean, there are some holes in this that do worry me. Like, he was being really awkward when he complimented my shoes. What if that’s how we’d act as a couple? As friends we get along well, but as a couple we just awkwardly chat, like someone trying to get by another person and they keep doing that stupid dance around each other?”

“That’s not going to happen. I know that you think there’s so many things that could go wrong, and to be completely honest you’re probably right, but think about how many things could go right. Just because things start awkward like that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll stay awkward either, you know? Maybe you just have to learn how to be more romantic. It’s your first real relationship, Mil. Don’t get too stressed about it.”

Millennia opened her mouth to respond, then snapped it shut and grabbed onto her dark blue hair and curled her fingers around it, before proceeding to drop her head onto the table. She sighed dramatically, her breath fogging up the wooden table beneath her face. Ushas stared at her for a few seconds, trying to decide what the right thing to say was, if anything at all, then shrugged and went back to working on her project. Friends meant a lot to her, but when it came to relationships, there was only so much advice she had to give.

//

“He said what?” Vansell replied, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “He thinks that we’re pissy?”

Theta nodded as he crossed his arms against his chest. “And stupid.”

“He didn’t call us stupid, Thete,” Koschei argued, rolling his eyes.

The three of them were gathered in the corridor outside of Vansell’s locker, where Theta and Koschei had gone specifically to find him. They were ridiculously bothered by the fact that Mortimus called them pissy, and they weren’t about to let it go without a fight. So, in order to better overwhelm him, they decided to drag Vansell into it as well, since Mortimus had already sort of done so when he mentioned the three of them being the pissiest members of the Deca.

“I don’t understand,” said Vansell. He closed his locker and leaned back against it; a book held firmly in his grip against his stomach. “He thinks that we’re pissy? I mean, I can see Theta, sure. And Kos, no offense, but you’re not always the most mature person in the room. But me? I don’t understand where he would get that from.”

“Maybe it’s because you’re so horribly pessimistic,” Theta suggested.

He shook his head. “Being pessimistic does not equal being pissy unless you misunderstand the meaning of one or both of those words. I can’t figure out where he got this from! And it really shouldn’t bother me, especially since he’s such a weirdo himself, but god. He’s fucking good at psychology and not this is going to bother me.”

“I mean, we could just ask him about it,” said Koschei. He shrugged gently and looked back and forth between Vansell and Theta—neither of whom looked particularly willing to partake in his suggestion. “Fine, okay. We’ll just stand around and bitch about him, then. Exactly the way that he says we do.”

“Wait a minute!” Vansell held up a hand and looked towards the floor dramatically as he thought, then turned back to his friends. “He thinks that talking about him behind his back is bitching? Not to defend our bitching of course, but maybe he’s just mad because of something we’ve said about him?”

“I don’t think so.” Theta frowned. “I mean, it seems like if he was mad at anyone, he would probably be mad at Magnus, right? He’s the one who’s always being a jerk to him.”

“On the one hand that would make sense, but on the other, he’s used to Magnus being a dickhead. But us? We’re normally very nice. Well, you’re normally very nice. So, maybe he’s mad about something in particular that we’ve done? It has to be separate things, since we haven’t hung out much recently, yeah?”

Koschei paused to consider it. “You’re almost making a good point, and for the record, I resent that. But do you really think that he would make this up just to piss us off?”

“Yeah, I do,” he answered, nodding as if he were speaking to a child. “Mortimus doesn’t just use psychology for fun, Koschei. He uses it to take advantage of people and using it as a form of revenge would be far from the worst thing that he’s ever done with it.”

“Wait, what has he done with it that’s worse than that?”

“I think we’ve already established that talking about him behind his back is probably not the right thing to do. We should really stay on topic here.”

“Oh, right.” Koschei nodded but didn’t lose his curious expression. “So, what’s the plan?”

“I might have an idea,” said Theta, an evil grin creeping up his face. “A really great idea.”

//

Several hours after Rallon banged his head against the wall and Millennia slammer her own against the table, the Deca, gathered for dinner in the dining hall. They weren’t all in there, but the few that were sat quietly, none of them particularly eager to interact with each other, as Magnus and Ushas were both working on something through the meal. Millennia was quite bored on her own, sitting there and pushing her food across the plate, knee-deep in thought about what the meaning was behind Rallon’s comment.

There was a large part of her that hoped he was attempting to flirt with her, but an almost larger part of uncertainty that outweighed her hope. Rallon was incredibly friendly and might have meant nothing by the comment—simply trying to be nice to her during an awkward silence. Of course, she’d never heard him randomly compliment anyone else, even on something so trivial as a pair of shoes, which gave her a bit more confidence that he might like her.

Several minutes of silence and zero bites of dinner later, Millennia jerked her head up when someone sat down on the seat beside her. Rallon smiled and dropped his bag near his feet, then opened his mouth to speak. He snapped it shut when his eyes glanced over Millennia’s plate, his entire face twisting in a mixture of disgust and confusion.

“Sorry, is that what we’re meant to be having for supper?” he asked, his brow furrowed.

“Oh, no.” Millennia shook her head and pushed her plate away awkwardly. “It used to look much more appetizing before I mutilated it with my fork, don’t worry.”

Rallon chuckled. “Is something bothering you? Or did it just taste really poorly?”

“A little bit of both,” she giggled. She took a quick sip of water and pulled a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I was just thinking about… a homework assignment. I’ve got a really rubbish partner and I’m worried that it’s not going to turn out well.”

“Ah. Well, you’re so smart, Mil. I’m sure that you’ll be able to make up for the work as long as they show up.”

More than reassuring, the comment came off as confusing. It didn’t help her work through her nonexistent problem, but instead brought back her question about whether Rallon actually had feelings for her or was just being friendly. His expression didn’t falter at all either, so reading his face didn’t help to identify his intentions at all.

“Thank you,” said Millennia, unable to mask the light blush on her cheeks. “That was a really nice thing to say. I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out.”

“Of course, you will.” Rallon gave her one more reassuring grin, then sighed and stood up. “Well, I’d best go get my slob. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

Millennia slipped into a dreamy smile when he walked away, keeping one eye on him as she grabbed her fork and dragged her plate closer to her. She still didn’t eat it, or even look at the plate, but kept pushing around the meal as she watched Rallon glide up to the front of the room. Then, in the middle of a thought so deep she couldn’t recall what it was, Ushas reached across the table and tapped her on the shoulder aggressively.

“What?” She jerked out of her thoughts and whipped her head around to look at her roommate. By then, they and Drax were the only ones left at the table, as the rest of the Deca had already gone or not bothered to show up. “What do you want, Ushas?”

“I was just wondering if you’re actually going to eat your dinner,” said Ushas, “or if you’re just going to keep staring at Rallon dreamily all evening. Because that food is hardly even edible anymore.”

“It was hardly even edible in the first place,” Drax interjected. They both spun around to give him a look, to which he rolled his eyes. “All right, sorry! I’ll just shut up now.”

“Thank you.” She glared at him one last time before turning her attention back to her roommate. “Now, would you like to answer the question?”

“I’m not even hungry,” Millennia confessed. “I really only came to dinner tonight because I wanted to talk to Rallon. He said, ‘see you at dinner’ this afternoon, and I was like ‘yeah, okay’, or maybe it was the other way around, but either way I wanted to show up, so. Here I am.”

Ushas groaned. “Oh, my god, Millennia. You are not doing things just because a man told you to. Tell me you’re not doing things just because a man told you to!”

“No, of course not! I honestly can’t remember if it was me or him who said that we’d meet here. And either way, I wanted to come, so even if it was him, it’s not because he told me to. I just really wanted to talk to him again.”

“To chat or to collect evidence?”

“That’s not what this is about!” Millennia insisted. “I just like spending time with him, that’s all.”

Drax scooted closer to them, leaving his unfinished dinner behind. “Sorry, but could I ask what this is about? I’m rather interested to know what this ‘evidence’ is in reference to.”

For a split second, Ushas considered slapping him and telling him to shut up and mind his own business. However, Millennia had been babbling all day and she had no one to complain about it to, so she decided to just go for it. What was the worst thing that could happen? She pointed a finger in Millennia’s direction.

“She’s trying to figure out whether Rallon likes her or not,” said Ushas, rolling her eyes. “She says that she can’t find any real evidence to prove that he does or doesn’t, and she’s too shy to tell him how she feels, so it’s just been this blabbering all day. On and on about how she’d ruin their friendship because he probably doesn’t like her and it would make everything awkward, and—what? What are you laughing at?”

“This. It’s ridiculous,” Drax chuckled, shaking his head. He reached down and grabbed his drink, sliding the glass towards him. “I don’t know what joke you’re trying to pull right now, girls, but it’s not working.”

“What are you talking about?”

He gave them a look, as if they were meant to be able to read his mind. “Everyone knows that Rallon is madly in love with Millennia.”

What?!”

//

Meanwhile, Rallon was standing in the dinner line, trying his hardest to not look back at Millennia. He cared for her so deeply and wanted to tell her how he felt so badly, but he wasn’t ready. No matter how much he wanted to do it, he knew that it wasn’t time for her to know. They weren’t yet in a secure, no risk position for him to tell her. When he finally broke the news, he had to be confident that it wouldn’t make anything weird. That, no matter if she felt the same way, they’d still be good friends. And that, no matter what, they—

“Are you just going to stand there like a lemon?”

Rallon turned around when he heard Jelpax’s voice from behind him. His friend was not in line, but standing beside it, walking straight over to him instead of following the people waiting for the buffet. His arms were crossed, one eyebrow raised as he nodded in the direction that the line was moving. Rallon flushed red and skipped forwards quickly when he realized that the line had gone on without him, meaning that he was holding up everyone behind him.

“What’s going on?” asked Jelpax curiously. “Busy thinking about lawyer stuff? You know, you don’t have to take all these classes. If it’s too much—”

“No, no, it’s not that.” Rallon shook his head, this time paying attention when the line took a step forward. “I was just thinking about something else. Or, someone else.”

“Millennia?” He waited for his friend to nod before he gestured for him to step out of line. They wandered a few feet away and came to a stop near one of the windows. “Just for the record, I had her as a physics partner last month, and all she did was talk about you.”

“Really?” Somehow, he didn’t know whether to be happy or creeped out. “What was she saying about me? I hope it wasn’t bad or embarrassing?”

“No, no.” Jelpax shook his head quickly. “Actually, she was just talking about how great you are, and how nice it is that you just randomly compliment her all the time. Mostly she was talking about your smile and how charming you are, which wasn’t like, highly entertaining, but if I was a gossipy girl than it would have been really sweet.”

“Oh, well that’s nice then, yeah? But it doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, she probably talks about plenty of friends like that. Most people talk about their friends really nice.”

“Not that much. Definitely not that much. Like, I’m arguably closer to Drax than any of us are close to anyone else, and I don’t ever talk about him.” He made a face. “Well, not the way that she was talking about you. It wasn’t like, ‘hey, you know how great our friend is?’ It was more like, ‘hey, I’d literally die for this guy because he’s just that nice.’”

“Yeah, but see, that’s the vibe I get from you and Drax too.” Rallon shrugged lamely. “Like, obviously one of you hasn’t got the unrequited feelings—don’t tell her I said that—but I’m fairly certain I’ve heard you say you would hurl yourself off a cliff for him. Well, maybe not those words exactly, but you know what I mean.”

“Okay, stop comparing us,” said Jelpax, waving his hands around. “That was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have said that. This is a totally different situation, in which I’m basically sure that she likes you. Otherwise she wouldn’t talk about you that much.”

“Like you talk about Drax that much?” He laughed and stuck his tongue out, to which Jelpax slapped him in the shoulder. “Okay, okay, sorry. I’ll stop now. I’m just kidding. But you really think she likes me?”

“Uh, yes. Duh. She didn’t technically say that to me, but I’d make an educated guess that says yeah. She absolutely likes you. But if you want an actual confirmation, you could just go and tell her. I’m sure that would work out better than me blabbing on about suspicions all day.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. I can’t tell her that. Actually, that’s my worst nightmare. Until I feel absolutely ready. She can’t know. So please don’t tell her anything, yeah?”

“Of course.” Jelpax nodded. “I don’t care much for gossip anyway.”

“Good, thanks.” He breathed a sigh of relief and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “I’d be absolutely mortified if she found out.”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t be that bad. But it doesn’t matter. She won’t find out until you’re ready.”

//

What?!”

Immediately after he spoke, Drax lifted a glass up to his lips and took a sip. When the girls shouted at him, he spewed his entire sip of water onto Ushas, who snapped her eyes shut and slowly, angrily wiped the moisture off her face. Luckily seated on the opposite side of the table, Drax felt slightly safer at a distance, and swallowed hard before he spoke.

“That’s for turning me blue,” he said jokingly, his voice slightly stunted by fear.

Ushas glared at him silently, her fists tightening beneath the table to the point where her knuckles were nearly white. But, still sitting just a few feet to the left of him, Millennia was too busy thinking to bother being angry at him for what he did to her roommate. He couldn’t be telling the truth, could he? There was no way that Rallon was actually in love with her. Especially not madly in love with her. The entire idea of it was ridiculous. Idealistic. Far too perfect to be real. She turned to him with a serious sense of urgency.

“Are you joking me right now?” she asked, an intense expression on her face. “This isn’t one of your ridiculous jokes, is it?”

“No.” Drax shook his head, his eyes going wide. “I mean, yes? No? I don’t know. I thought you knew. I’m so confused right now. I—don’t tell Rallon that I told you. Unless you’re supposed to know about it. Oh, shit. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth, should I?”

“For god’s sake, Drax! Stop talking and answer the question!”

“Yes! Yes, he is absolutely, one hundred percent, absolutely madly in love with you.”

Millennia gasped, her shoulders sagging and her gaze losing its focus as she tried to make sense of what Drax had said. With the way that he was talking, she was almost sure that he was telling the truth, and not pulling any kind of a prank. He sounded genuinely concerned that he may have revealed private information, his eyes wide as they flickered back and forth between Ushas and Millennia. Which meant that it was true. Rallon was actually, genuinely in love with her.

In love.

And they hadn’t even dated yet.

But that meant that he wanted to date her? She wasn’t sending her feelings into the void. Rallon returned them, possibly even stronger than her, and she’d been almost blind to it for however long it’d been going on. Which led her to her next question, which probably wasn’t as important, but felt like life or death for her.

“How long has he felt this way for?” Millennia demanded, her expression getting more intense by the second.

Drax looked almost frightened, and she didn’t know if it was because of her tone or Ushas’s increasingly horrible stare. “I don’t know. A long time? Long as I can remember. It’s just something people know. I didn’t know that you didn’t know!” He took a deep breath. “But oh, my god. At least we can get all this over with now, yeah? He’ll be back in a minute and you can just tell him how you feel, and then he’ll say how he feels, and you’ll snog and stop talking about each other behind your backs. Great love story, yeah?”

“No. No, I can’t talk to him about this. I don’t even know how I feel about this right now. I—oh, god. He’s coming back. Just—tell him I’m sick or something!”

Before Rallon turned around to start walking back to them, Millennia grabbed her bag from beneath her feet and ran out of the room as quickly as she could. No matter how long she’d been dreaming of the day that she’d find out Rallon had feelings for her, she still felt like she wasn’t ready to face it. And in all the different ways she imagined herself finding out, Drax accidentally telling her and then spitting on Ushas’s face was not one of them.

Once she was gone, Rallon slid back into his seat, glancing around the room as if he were looking for someone. Drax looked away awkwardly, while Ushas just said nothing, not wanting to be the one who accidentally revealed that Millennia accidentally knew his secret.

“Hey, do either of you know where Millennia went?” he asked.

“No,” Drax answered quickly. “Actually, I, uh, got to go do something. Bye.”

“And I really need a towel,” Ushas added. “Enjoy your dinner!”

They both took off running out of the dining hall before Rallon even had a chance to see them go.

//

“This is the worst idea that you’ve ever had.”

“Shut up and shove your ass in that window.”

Koschei rolled his eyes, reluctant to do what Theta said. He was already halfway through Mortimus’s bedroom window, meaning he could see the horrible mess on his floor, and he didn’t want to get any closer to it. Unfortunately, if he was going to get into the room at all, he would have to roll right into the mess, as there was no clean landing space and Magnus’s window had been locked (because he had, obviously, checked Magnus’s window before resorting to the hellhole).

“Oh, god. Here we go.”

He used his arms and pulled himself forwards, wincing when he slipped the rest of the way in, his knees and elbows slamming into the floor first. Several crunches and cracks emitted when he landed, and he groaned. All he could do then was hope that he hadn’t crushed anything that was important to Mortimus. Of course, he thought, if it was important, he probably wouldn’t have left it on the floor in the first place. Or would he have? After all, it did look like pretty much everything he owned was on the floor, meaning that it contained all his things—valuables and trash alike.

“Are you inside?” Theta called up. “Koschei?”

Koschei pried himself out of the pile of stuff and stumbled back over to the window. He peered out of it onto the ground, where Theta and Vansell were both standing near the ladder. Theta looked both overly enthusiastic and worried, while Vansell was a mixture of pissed off and nervous.

“Stop screaming,” Koschei huffed down, glancing over his shoulder as if Mortimus would walk in at any moment. “If you keep shouting like that then someone is going to find us down here, and you don’t want that, do you? Our plan will be ruined.”

“Okay, all right. Just hurry up, yeah? Someone will see the ladder too if you take too long.”

He nodded and rolled his eyes, then pulled back into the room and looked around it. Somewhere in the room was the thing that he was looking for, and if he could just find it, their revenge would be complete. He reached into his pocket to make sure he still had his slide, then grinned to himself and waded through the trash towards the clear space towards the front and middle of the room.

A quick check revealed that there was nothing on his bedside table, and so Koschei hoped beyond anything that he left his homework on his desk. He walked over to check, and nearly looked in the stack of papers on the left side of it but froze when he saw several papers in the middle of the desk. The sensible part of him wanted to walk away and keep working on his assignment, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking at the half-written letter and open journal sitting there. Apparently, he’d lost all sense of boundaries, and any respectable bit of his brain dissipated when he read the note.

Mum, I don’t know why you’re avoiding my messages. Did I do something wrong? I’m sorry I got in trouble again.

The rest of it was scribbled out, erased, and generally not finished, leaving nothing else for Koschei to discover there. He tried to drag himself over to what was obviously a stack of homework, but the journal was like a magnet and he couldn’t stop himself from reading the opened page.

My head hurts again.

I wanted to talk to someone today, but no one likes me anymore. Even Mai still won’t spend time with me. She always walks away. At least Magnus still listens. Even if he does hate me, he at least lets me rant to him. Sometimes I just wish I had a friend who would talk back, but everyone thinks I’m creepy. I guess they have a good reason for it.

This was supposed to help me improve my handwriting, but I think it’s getting worse. Probably because of my fucked-up knuckles. Yesterday I couldn’t put my left wrist on the desk because of the bruises. I hope they go away soon. I don’t want anyone to notice them. (Except Magnus, I guess, since he already knows.)

Koschei stopped reading on the last line. Mortimus wrote that he didn’t want anyone to know about it, and yet, like a traitor, he read about it. Suddenly, Koschei felt sick to his stomach, and if it weren’t for the stupid comments that his friend—because they were friends, no matter what he wrote down—had made, he wouldn’t have gone through with the revenge. But as it was, he knew that he couldn’t not do it without his friends asking why, so he decided to just go through with it.

He dug through the stack of papers until he found the slide reel that he was looking for. Koschei slid out one of the images, then tossed in a new one in its place. As soon as he was finished, Koschei took one more look over his shoulder, then ducked out of the window as quickly as he could. He took two steps down the ladder, then promptly slipped and tumbled all the way down to the ground. By the time he got there, Theta was pointing and laughing at him, while Vansell hurried to take down the ladder.

“Jeez, Kos, climb much?” Theta chuckled. Koschei only rolled his eyes (again) in response. “All right, whatever. Did you do it?”

Koschei nodded. “Yeah, I did it. But now that it’s done, I think it might be best to just let this go. I don’t think it’s really worth it to keep bugging him over this.”

“Since when do you have a conscience?” asked Vansell. He snorted and collapsed the ladder.

“I don’t,” he said quickly, “I just don’t think we need to be making a bigger deal out of this than it is. I mean, it was just one stupid comment. Why are we getting so pissed off over this anyway?”

“Because we’re pissy,” Theta answered. “Did you miss the entire point he was trying to make?”

“Did you miss the entire point he was trying to make? You’re literally proving him right. I mean, we’re proving him right.” He sighed. “You know what? What’s done is done so I guess we’re good to go. Think they still have anything left in the dining hall?”

//

Millennia took a deep breath to try to steady herself as she paced across her bedroom. If Drax was really telling the truth—and she was really, really sure that he was—then that meant that Rallon liked her. Maybe even more than liked her. Which had been, of course, her dream for quite a while then. And yet still, somehow, it was freaking her out instead of making her happy. Why wasn’t she happy? It was the greatest thing that ever happened to her. Rallon liked her. He actually liked her.

But why didn’t he tell her that himself?

Although she couldn’t understand the entire reason why she felt so empty and confused, part of it definitely came from the fact that Rallon wasn’t the one to tell her himself. In fact, he didn’t seem like he had any plans to tell her himself. As far as she could tell, he wanted them to stay as just friends. But why? Why didn’t he think that he could tell her? No matter how hard she tried to come up with an explanation for it, Millennia couldn’t think of anything.

“Hey.” Ushas slipped into the room, quietly sliding the door shut behind her. “You okay?”

Millennia nodded a little too aggressively. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. I’m just trying to make sense of this whole thing. It’s kind of a lot of information to process all at once.”

“Yeah, I can tell by the way you’re pacing.” She dropped her bag onto the floor beside her desk and then leaned back against it when she turned to look at her roommate. “Why did you run out of there earlier? You could have told him, Millennia. All you had to say was that you knew about his crush and tell him that you like him too.”

“In the dining hall? With you and Drax there? While he has a mouthful of potatoes?” She rolled her eyes a little too dramatically. “Yeah, that’s the most romantic way for us to become a couple.”

“Why does it have to be romantic? It’s not like you need some beautiful story about how you got together so long as it happens, right? And right now, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening any time soon, since both of you are far too shy to actually do anything about it. Come on, Millennia. Just say something to him.”

“I can’t! I mean, I want to, but I just can’t. It’s all moving so fast, I…” Her voice trailed off and she sighed before taking a seat on the edge of her bed. “Just this morning I was talking about how I dreamed of this day coming. And how I like him so much. But I didn’t expect anything to happen. Not right now. And definitely not like that. I just don’t know how to react, you know? It’s like, the perfect news, but in all the wrong ways.”

Even though she was usually terrible when it came to relationships, Ushas nodded understandingly. For once, it actually made sense to her. It was expectations vs. reality, and one of them was very clearly better than the other.

“I guess I just imagined him telling me himself, after a romantic dance or something, you know? Or taking a stroll through the woods late at night. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, and it probably was destined to happen this way since our lives are such a joke, but I really wish it would have gone better. I wish we weren’t fifty feet apart and surrounded by near strangers when I found out.”

Millennia sighed and dropped her head into her hands. She was torn between wanting the perfect first date and wanting to just tell Rallon about everything, and she didn’t know which one she wanted to pursue. It wasn’t just a matter of the perfect moment, but of waiting for so long, and having to keep such a big secret from Rallon. She took a deep breath, and looked up to Ushas, her expression almost pleading.

“I don’t even know what to do anymore,” she said quietly.

Ushas hesitated. “Go with your gut feeling. It’s never wrong.”

“Okay.” Millennia nodded. It seemed like a good idea, but there was just one big problem.

She didn’t know what her gut was trying to tell her.

//

“It was really weird,” Rallon went on. He was talking to Vansell the next morning, as he adjusted his collar to make sure it was in place. “I told her that I was going to get my dinner, and she said ‘okay’, and then I came back and she was just gone. That’s weird, right? That’s not just me?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Vansell shrugged as he dragged a comb through his dark hair. “I mean, it could be more normal than you think. She might have forgotten about a homework assignment or something. Or maybe she got sick. You know that the new lunch lady is no good.”

“Yeah, but Drax and Ushas were acting really weird when I asked if they knew where she went. They both mumbled out really poor excuses and just took off running out of the room like I wouldn’t realize anything was odd.”

“Oh, huh.” He frowned. “That does actually sound rather weird. Maybe she had an allergic reaction to your new cologne and asked them not to tell?”

“You mean like how I asked you not to speak about the fact that I’m wearing cologne?”

Vansell nodded and pointed his comb at his roommate. “Yes, exactly like that,” he answered. “Look, Rallon, it’s really not a big deal. Girls can be rather weird sometimes. Why don’t you just talk to her this afternoon and find out what’s going on? She’s in your logic class, yeah?”

“Yeah, she is.” Rallon finally stepped away from his mirror and sat down on his bed to tie his shoes. “I guess I can try, I just don’t know if she wants to talk, you know?”

“She always wants to talk to you. I don’t know what was going on last night, but she definitely isn’t mad at you. I guarantee it.”

“All right. I guess I’ll plan on talking to her then. See you later.”

He did one last quick check in the mirror before he grabbed his bag and strode out of the room, leaving Vansell to wonder whether he’d actually go through with the plan or not.

//

Mortimus cleared his throat and clapped his note cards against the desk, preparing to go up for his history presentation. He spent ages working on his slides and speech, and even though he knew he wouldn’t get the best grade in the class, he was at least confident that he’d done a decent job. Plus, his name was right around the center of the alphabet, so he was called on after all his nerves had already faded away, making it much easier for him to give a smooth presentation.

“Hello, fellow students,” he said, upon reaching the front of the classroom. He picked up the remote that controlled the slides, then took a deep breath and pressed the first button. “Today, I’m going to be talking about…”

The first half of Mortimus’s presentation went remarkably well. He didn’t trip over his words, he didn’t forget anything he was supposed to say, and he managed to keep up with the slides every time he got to a new point. For him, it was more of a success than anything he’d done in a very long while, and his professor thought so too. He even managed to keep his peers interested, probably due to the interesting images he’d chosen for his presentation.

“…and because of that, they—what?”

After three minutes of flawless presenting, Mortimus’s entire world was shaken by the image that appeared on the screen. The one that did not capture an old Gallifreyan weapon, but rather a collage of Mortimus himself doing rather unsavory things at the Academy’s last end of term party. For a few seconds, everyone laughed, until they realized that Mortimus was standing shock still. The room fell into a dead silence as they waited to hear his response, and when he finally spoke, his infectious laughter filled the entire classroom.

“Shit, man,” he said, his gaze still focused on the collage that covered the wall, “they got me back good.”

And even though everyone in the room knew that he was going to be the laughingstock of the Academy for the day, Mortimus carried on with his presentation as normal, as if the embarrassing photographs hadn’t even phased him a bit.

//

“Psst. Millennia.” Rallon poked Millennia gently beneath the table, trying to get her attention. Unfortunately, she’d been avoiding his gaze since they entered logic class that afternoon, even when they broke off into groups of four—basically forcing them to talk to each other. “Millennia.”

Millennia did not look at him despite his prodding, leading Rallon to wonder whether he was, in fact, invisible. He couldn’t believe that she would actually ignore him, especially during class when he could be trying to ask her about their assignment. Which, of course, he was not, but she didn’t know that for sure.

“Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” asked Drax, peering over the directions they’d been given. “Like, I know I’m an idiot, but I’m not this stupid, yeah?”

The girl sitting across from him—Fuvyea—shrugged, her bright red hair spilling over her shoulders. “It seems rather simple to me. We just have to work together.”

“Yeah, we have to work together,” Rallon agreed, his gaze fixed on Millennia. She dodged his stare. “All four of us. Right, Millennia?”

“Um…” Finally, she was forced to look up. She glanced at Drax and Fuvyea, then over to Ushas—who was at the table in front of them—and turned to look at Rallon. “Uh, yeah. Obviously, that’s the assignment. So, what exactly are we doing again?”

“Wow,” Drax snorted. “Look at this. I’m not the most clueless person at the table for once. Nice, isn’t it?”

He reached across the dark wooden table to fist-bump Fuvyea, but she just gave him a look and pushed his hand away, a slightly disgusted expression on her face. He shrugged and leaned against the wall, getting himself comfortable to watch the ultimate showdown between Rallon and Millennia. Unfortunately for him, neither of them were remarkably aggressive, and the fight ended up being nothing more than several seconds of awkward silence followed by both averting their gazes.

After the silence had gone on for far too long, Fuvyea took the exercise directions from Drax and quickly read over them. “So, do you think we should start with the twigs or the toothpicks?”

“Probably the toothpicks,” said Drax, “since they’re not—”

“Have you been avoiding me?” Rallon cut off his friend, killing the only surviving remnant of progress towards completing their assignment. Millennia didn’t respond right away, leading him to ask again. “Come on, Mil. I’m not mad. I just want to know if I’ve done something wrong.”

“No, no, nothing wrong! Millennia’s probably just tired. You’re just tired, yeah?”

She glared at Drax. “No, I’m not tired,” she snapped. “I just have a lot on my mind right now. It’s really nothing to do with you.”

“Of course, it’s not,” Drax added quickly. It was quite clear to Millennia that he’d caught on to her problem and was trying desperately to cover up his mistake. “Why would it have anything to do with you? No reason, that’s why. Let’s just get back to work on the assignment. What were you saying, Fuvyea? Something about sticks?”

“No, hold on a second.” Rallon wasn’t ready to let it go yet. “You’ve been dodging me since last night. Are you sure there’s nothing going on?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Millennia nodded a bit too aggressively. “Like I said, I’m just rather tired. I didn’t feel like speaking to anyone today.”

“You spoke to me this morning,” said Fuvyea casually. Somehow, she didn’t seem to realize that something was up. “Remember? We were talking about that dreadful science homework we got yesterday?”

“Oh, shut up, Fuvyea!”

The outburst was the last thing that Rallon expected to hear from Millennia, and it alone convinced him that something was up. In the heat of the moment, he completely forgot about Drax and Fuvyea, and went laser-focused on Millennia.

“Millennia, what’s going on?” he asked. “Why are you acting so strange right now?”

“I’m not acting strange; I’m just dealing with stuff. We all have to deal with stuff sometimes, Rallon.”

“But it’s not just anything, you’re avoiding me. Why are you doing that? Did I do something to upset you?”

“No, of course not. It’s just—” Millennia cut herself off. She glanced back and forth across Rallon’s face, as if she were looking for something. Then, suddenly and without notice, she grabbed her bag off the floor, shoved her chair back, and stood up. “I’m sorry. I just—I can’t do this. I’m so sorry.”

She ran out of the room before Rallon even had a chance to stand up, leaving him alone at the table with Drax and the girl whose name he already forgot. He sighed as he watched her go, only turning back to his team when Drax reached over to tap him on the shoulder. He gave him a look.

“Okay, I know that you’re all caught up in this relationship stuff,” he said, “but some of us need to pass the class, so could we get back to this logic thing?”

“Relationship stuff?” Fuvyea raised an eyebrow. “Millennia didn’t tell me that you two are dating.”

“Oh, no. They’re not dating. They’re just madly in love and not doing anything about it because ‘it might make things awkward’ or ‘ruin their friendship’ or some shit. Honestly, I don’t think I can take another moment of it myself.”

While Fuvyea simply nodded understandingly, Rallon’s jaw dropped. His eyes went wide, not even blinking as he tried to make sense of what Drax said. They both had crushes on each other? Millennia liked him? Or was Drax just making up some stupid story so that Fuvyea would drop it and they could get back to work? It wasn’t unlikely, considering he was a smooth liar and had a terrible grade in his class.

“Wait, what did you just say?” Despite what he knew about their class, Rallon still couldn’t be bothered to get back to their assignment—especially since Professor Nange was nowhere to be seen. “Did you just say that Millennia likes me?”

The expression on Drax’s face was so wide and so shocked that Rallon feared he may pop like a balloon. His entire face went bright red, and he stammered for several seconds before he finally managed to sputter out a few words.

“I, uh, no.” He shook his head frantically. “No, of course not. Why would she like you? Not that you’re a bad person, but you’re kind of boring. Not that you’re too boring! Just that she’s really exciting and probably wants to be with someone else who’s also exciting. Not that you’re not exciting, just that—”

Drax didn’t get another word out before Ushas reached around and slapped him across the back of the head. Rather than getting pissed off as per usual, Drax simply nodded gratefully, as if he was exactly aware of how stupid he was acting at the moment. However, the action turned out to be counterproductive as well, as it only added to Rallon’s curiosity.

“Wait, did you know something about this?” he asked, peering over the table at Ushas. Beside him, Fuvyea groaned and slumped back against the wall. “Ushas, does Millennia like me?”

“I cannot confirm or deny that question,” Ushas answered quickly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an assignment to be getting back to.”

She turned around and ducked back into her work, leaving him alone to deal with the situation. As soon as Ushas stopped watching, Rallon turned right back to Drax, practically staring into his soul with his intense glare. Drax swallowed hard, trying anything to avert his gaze.

“Drax, what is going on right now?” asked Rallon slowly.

“Don’t crack, don’t crack, don’t crack,” Ushas whispered, quietly enough that only Drax was able to hear. Unfortunately, hearing was not the same as obeying, and the pressure was becoming too much for him. He bit his lip almost hard enough for it to split, stopping only when Rallon leaned forwards, forcing his glare to become even more intense.

“Yeah, Millennia totally likes you,” Drax blurted. “She’s like, absolutely in love with you. Not as much as you are with her, but a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. And she’s acting weird because I accidentally told her that you’re in love with her, and it freaked her out, so hopefully this evens things out. Or since you both know; we could all just agree to pretend that none of this ever happened and I never spilled any secrets. I think that’s a good idea, don’t you?”

Rallon didn’t say a word, his face frozen.

“Okay. Shit. Sorry. I got to go. So sorry, Fuvyea.”

Just like Millennia before him, Drax stood up and bolted out of the room, leaving Rallon alone to wonder what the hell was going on.

//

Several hours later, after the last of their classes finished, Drax closed the door to his locker. He smirked when he saw Jelpax standing behind it, leaning against the dark red locker beside his own.

“Hey,” he said, his arms crossed.

“Hallo, mate.” Drax smiled and wrapped an arm around his shoulder before leading him down the nearly empty hallway. “Been a bit since we got a proper chance to talk. You been doing anything interesting the last couple days?”

Jelpax shook his head. “No, not really. But I hear you’ve accidentally told on both Millennia and Rallon.”

“Jesus, has everyone in the Academy heard about that now?”

“No, just everyone in the Deca,” he answered. “It’s all right though. I think we were all waiting for something to happen with this, you know? It’s kind of the inevitable, and we don’t get a whole lot of that around here.”

“Right.” Drax laughed. “It’s like, there’s a difference between liking someone and offering to hurl yourself off a cliff for them. One is harmless feelings, or a nice friendship, and the other is like—what?”

Jelpax slid out of his grip and took a step away from him, stumbling as he moved backwards. He said nothing as he moved back, Drax’s own expression becoming concerned as he tried to make sense of what was happening. They stopped walking in the hallway, standing a few feet apart.

“Are you all right?” asked Drax. He took a step closer to Jelpax, who only moved further away, nearly backing into the pale orange wall. “Pax?”

“No, yeah, I’m fine,” he said quickly, despite his voice obviously cracking. Drax knew that something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t place what it was. “I was just thinking about something that—never mind. I should probably go. I have a lot of homework to do.”

“Wait, don’t go. What did I say? Pax!”

Jelpax didn’t wait. He took one last look at his friend, then turned around, and ran.

//

“So, I had a rather interesting presentation this afternoon,” said Mortimus, as he slid into the seat beside Vansell. Them, Theta, and Koschei were the only ones at the dinner table at the moment, which worked out perfectly for his plan. “I suppose I must have slid the wrong slide into my set, because one of those things was not like the others.”

Koschei smirked, but kept his gaze focused on his straw, which he twisted around with his right hand. “Yeah? Well, that happens sometimes. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No, no, of course not. I was probably just in a pissy mood. You know, ‘cause I would never do this if I was mature and focused. But I guess sometimes my juvenile nature just gets the better of me, you know what I mean? Like, it’s fun to be an adult sometimes, but I also like to go back to my time tot roots with juvenile pranks.”

“Juvenile?” Theta frowned, glancing over at Koschei and Vansell concernedly. “I don’t think it could have been that ridiculous.”

“I don’t know.” Mortimus shrugged and took a long sip of soda from his bottle, giving them more time to think about what he said. “I mean, it was a rather ridiculous thing to do. The entire class was laughing at me. At least my grade didn’t suffer for it, though. That’s the point where I think jokes lose all meaning.”

“No, I disagree,” said Vansell. “If you’re going after someone like Ushas, then it’s hilarious to fuck up her grade a bit.”

“Yeah, but I really just sabotaged myself. See, after class, our professor told me that I probably would have gotten a one hundred percent, but I only got a ninety-four because that mistake just threw the whole thing off course. It’s all right, though. That’s my average grade anyway. Though I suppose it would’ve been nice to show off for once. But I guess that’s what I get for being immature, yeah?”

At first, Koschei thought for sure that Mortimus knew they did it, but suddenly he wasn’t too sure anymore. He swallowed hard, trying desperately to find any sort of tell as to whether Mortimus was lying or not. Unfortunately, he didn’t get too long of a chance.

“Well, I’d better go get my dinner,” he announced, pushing himself out of his seat. “I’ll see you babies in a minute.”

The three of them watched him go in silence, none of them knowing how they were meant to feel about what they’d done anymore.

Chapter Text

“What the—?”

Drax shoved aside the hanging clothes in his closet, attempting to see everything he had stacked behind them. His eyes darted back and forth as he attempted to make sense of what was going on. The situation being, of course, that every single pair of shoes he owned was missing.

One more time, he shoved aside everything in there, hoping that his shoes had just fallen while he was half-asleep grabbing his pajamas the night before. Unfortunately, the shoes were nowhere to be seen, his entire shelf for them empty. He whipped around to look for his roommate, to ask if he knew what was going on, but found that Jelpax wasn’t there. He must’ve slipped out quietly when Drax wasn’t looking.

For a moment, Drax was a mixture of annoyed and upset. He felt like Jelpax was ignoring him for some reason, which could probably be attributed to the fact that he was. They hadn’t even spoken to each other since their awkward conversation after class the day before, entirely because of Jelpax’s constant dodging of his roommate. He didn’t come back to their room until Drax was asleep and didn’t talk to him at all in the morning. Drax continued to search his brain for things he might have done wrong, but he couldn’t think of anything.

Before he could start thinking about what he did wrong again, Drax was hit with a brilliant idea and stopped to think about it. He stepped away from his closet and turned around, then headed over to Jelpax’s and rummaged through his things. Though it definitely should have, the issue of privacy didn’t even enter Drax’s mind. He simply pushed aside his shirts, ignored the things that stuck out as personal, and moved on until he found the shoes.

Rather than spending time trying to choose the right pair of shoes, Drax grabbed the first ones he saw—plain black boots, absolutely appropriate—and dragged them out of the closet. He pulled them onto his feet as quickly as he could, then grabbed his bag and hustled out of the room. In his rush, he’d already missed breakfast, and he wasn’t about to be late to his first class too.

On his way out the door, Drax reached up to grab one of his beanies off the table by the door, then froze when he picked one up. It wasn’t black, gray, or even dark purple. No, it was a horrendous shade of neon green—the color so bright and so vibrant that it nearly burned his eyes right out. He turned it over in disgust, trying to understand how his previously gray hat had become such a horrible color, then frowned when a note fell out of it and slid onto the floor.

“What?” he mumbled.

Drax knelt down to pick it up, then unfolded the tiny slip of paper and nearly cracked his jaw from clenching his teeth in rage. The note was only two words, written in the most technically correct handwriting he’d ever seen in his life. It didn’t take him three seconds to realize who wrote it. Determined to destroy her, Drax grabbed the least ugly out of his newly neon beanies, pulled it onto his head, and darted out of the room; his mind still thinking back to the stupid note she’d left for him.

‘You’re welcome.’

//

“Oh, my god,” Rallon groaned. He was pacing around his dorm in circles, clutching onto his dark hair as he tried to make sense of what was happening to him. “Oh, my god.”

“Yes, you’ve said that about a thousand times now,” snapped Vansell. He finished tying his shoe, then dropped his foot onto the floor in front of his seat on the bed and turned to face his roommate. “And you said it around a thousand times yesterday as well. Is it safe to assume that you’ve forgotten how to say anything else?”

Rallon stopped pacing only long enough to roll his eyes. “Millennia likes me, Van. She actually likes me. Like, like likes me. Not just like, but like-like.”

“For fuck’s sake. I can’t understand you when you use the same word forty-two times in one sentence.”

“I didn’t say it forty-two times. I don’t know how many times I said it, but it wasn’t forty-two times. And even if it was, who cares? I can say it as much as I want to, because it’s true. Millennia likes me. She actually likes me. For real. She likes me the same way I like her and if she would only respond to my messages, I’d be able to tell her that!”

“But she’s ignoring your messages because…?”

Moments after he asked the question, Vansell regretted it. Rallon stopped pacing and let out a long, dramatic sigh before flopping down onto his bed, his eyes staring up at the ceiling longingly. For a split second, Vansell thought he might be able to get away, and tried to slip out of the room before Rallon resumed babbling, but he spoke right before he could place his hand onto the door handle.

“I don’t know why she’s ignoring me,” he said. “Maybe I said something wrong. I don’t remember us doing anything odd. She—wait a minute.”

Suddenly, Rallon sat straight up, gazing straight ahead of him rather than at Vansell. He furrowed his brow as if he were thinking about something, and Vansell could only imagine what it was as he pieced together the information in his mind. After a minute, his eyes slowly turned back to his roommate, an almost concerned expression on his own face.

“Okay,” began Rallon, “this might sound a bit out there, but do you think that Drax said something weird to her?”

“Yes, absolutely.” Vansell nodded without hesitation.

Knowing that he was making a general analysis, Rallon chose to go on. “He told me that he accidentally told her that I’m in love with her. Not that I am! Just that that’s what he said. And so that’s what she thinks. And do you think that might have freaked her out? I mean, it might freak me out if I found out someone was in love with me. You know, fancying her is one thing, but being in love is a whole other level.”

“Right. Well, why don’t you just catch up with her and talk about it? It’s not like there’s much else you can do at this point.”

“Okay.” He sighed and chewed lamely on his thumbnail. “Okay, yeah, I’ll figure something out.”

As soon as he looked away, Vansell stole the opportunity to slip out of the room. No matter how much he didn’t care about gossip, attending his classes still had to come first.

//

“What is that?!”

Drax had forgotten about his ridiculously colored hat until someone felt the need to point it out to him. He gave Magnus a look and sat down at the lunch table beside his friends, the expression on his own face not even close to amused, despite Theta’s insistent laughter.

“Yeah, you seen Ushas anywhere?” he asked, craning his head around to get a view of the entire dining hall. “Or Jelpax? Not that he had anything to do with it. He’s just vanished on me.”

“Don’t you have Gallifreyan together in the mornings?” Mortimus inquired, before taking a long sip from his straw. “You should have seen him there, yeah?”

“We do, and yeah, you would think, but he never showed up. It was really odd. I checked our room afterward to see if he was ill, but he wasn’t around there or the nurse’s office. I’m actually getting quite concerned at this point. I can’t remember the last time he just up and disappeared like this.”

“That’s because it’s never happened.” The voice that spoke was not someone at the table, but a friend walking up behind them. Ushas took a seat beside Drax, then turned to him and smiled as she rested her chin on her hand. “Hi. I like your hat. It’s very pretty.”

He let out a long, drawn out sigh. “It’s neon purple. Thanks for that, you absolute a-hole.”

“You’re very, very welcome. And if you’d like to spit all over me again, then it’s totally fine. I think there’s still some socks left I can borrow.”

“So, you took my shoes too, yeah?” Drax narrowed his eyes, crossing his arms as he glared at her. “I don’t know what kind of funny prank you think this is, but I actually did need those.”

“Why? You’re wearing shoes right now,” she pointed out. “I guess they weren’t that important since you were able to replace them so quickly.”

“I didn’t replace them, I stole them.”

“You—”

Before Ushas could finish coming up with a brilliant retort, someone else floated over to the table and sat down across from them, sighing dramatically before he dropped his head onto the table. Everyone stared at Rallon for a minute, until he lifted his head and looked back and forth between them all, registering who was there.

“Have any of you seen Millennia?” he asked. “I’ve been searching for her all morning and I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

Mortimus shook his head before stuffing another bite of food into his mouth. “Yeah,” he answered, his mouth still half-full, “she was here earlier, but she took her lunch to-go so that she wouldn’t have to sit near you. I haven’t a clue where she’s gone off to now. Sorry about that. But is it all right if I ask you what you’ve done to her?”

“No, it’s not. She’s really avoiding me?”

“Yes, she is,” said Magnus. “Actually, I believe her exact words earlier were, ‘I am avoiding Rallon. Fuck him.’”

Rallon’s jaw dropped and he turned to look at Mortimus who was again shaking his head. “No, she didn’t say that,” he reassured Rallon. “She just said something about awkwardness and not wanting to make things uncomfortable and figuring things out or something. I wasn’t really listening. But I’m assuming she’s found out about your crush or you’ve found out about hers?”

“What?” he gaped. “How did you know about that?”

He shrugged. “It’s pretty obvious. Well, to everyone except you, I suppose. I mean, pretty much everybody knows it, especially regarding your obvious as hell infatuation. Do you think I’m new here?”

“I don’t really know what to say to that.”

“Well, I think I gave you a bit of a hint earlier,” Magnus interrupted. He pointed his fork in his roommate’s direction. “Simple solution to everything. Mortimus?”

“Yeah, mate?”

“Fuck you.”

Mortimus groaned and tossed his utensils onto the table, while Theta resumed laughing. “Every time!”

“Okay, moving on, please,” said Rallon, gesturing for them to stop talking. “Millennia really said that she’s avoiding me?”

“Yeah, sorry mate. Pretty sure that ship has sailed.” He moved his arm in a gesture, as if it were a ship sailing.

“No. I’m not letting her get away that easily.”

He grabbed his bag off the floor and ran out of the room, leaving his friends behind. They stayed silent for a few seconds, before Theta turned to look at the rest of the table, his brow furrowed.

“I know I wasn’t quite a part of this,” he began, “but he has no idea where she is, right?”

“Yeah, right.” Mortimus nodded.

“All right, then.” Theta shrugged and went back to his meal. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth getting himself involved in his friends’ drama.

//

Of course, despite her friends’ lack of knowledge, there was one person who knew where Millennia was—herself.

She was sitting on the steps outside the front of the Academy, staring out at the fields in the distance. She’d finished her lunch several minutes before, but still had time before she needed to go back inside for her classes. Even though Millennia wanted to go back in and spend time with her friends, she didn’t know if she was ready. Part of her was still trying to figure out what she was going to do about Rallon.

Because the one thing that she knew she wanted to do, was something.

Pretending that nothing happened was not an option. She cared about Rallon more than anything else in the world and she knew that she would regret it if she let him go. But there was a part of her that still wished he would have said something. A part of her that was almost angry at him for not telling her the truth, because if he’d said anything to her before, she knew what she would do.

Or did she?

She thought she would smile. Maybe even laugh. Reach up to kiss him, stepping on her tiptoes to catch up to his ridiculous height. (Not that he was too tall. No, he was just perfectly tall enough.) But after nearly two days of avoiding him to get her feelings in order, Millennia realized that she didn’t know how she was going to react at all. She didn’t know what she wanted to do at all. At least, she didn’t think so.

Then she thought about Rallon. His smile. His eyes. His hugs. Everything she loved so much about him. And she realized that she couldn’t just leave him. No matter whether he was ready to tell her, or she ready to tell him, it was time. They both had waited far too long already, and she needed to just get on with it.

Before she could change her mind, Millennia grabbed her bag and hauled it over her shoulder, then sprinted into the building to search for Rallon before it was too late.

//

“Jelpax?”

Koschei knocked on the door again, hoping that his friend would let him in. He’d messaged him several times before he resorted to coming over, due to getting no response. He even checked the library on his way over, to see if Jelpax might have been studying in there, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Hello?” He knocked again, praying that Jelpax was around. He was almost certain they had the same free period and was almost desperate to speak with him. “You in there?”

After a bit of hesitation, Koschei heard him sigh from inside the room. “Yeah, it’s open.”

Koschei slid the door open and walked in, then waved when he saw Jelpax sitting at his desk. “Hey, mate. Sorry to bother you, but I’ve got this big history exam in like forty-five minutes and I was just wondering if you’d be able to help me with some flash cards? It’s fine if you’re busy.”

“No, you’re all right.” Jelpax sniffed and spun around in his chair. “I’m not doing anything right now. You got the cards?”

“Uh, yeah.” He held up the stack of cards for his friend to see, furrowing his brow. “You all right, mate?”

“Of course. Why?”

The answer to the question wasn’t quite as obvious as Koschei felt it should have been. There wasn’t exactly something wrong with Jelpax, or any obvious signs that he was feeling upset or under the weather, but something about his general demeanor was just different from usual. Something about it wasn’t the same as the Jelpax that he knew.

“No reason, it’s fine.” He shrugged it off. “So, you want to help me with these, then?”

“Yeah. Just let me get my textbook real quick,” said Jelpax. “Might as well make sure that the answers on your flashcards are actually correct.”

Koschei actually snorted at the comment but lost any humor he had left when Jelpax hustled to grab his book. Suddenly it clicked what was off, and he took a second to watch as Jelpax flipped through the pages of his textbook. He was hyper. Too hyper. Moving at a speed that was unnatural for him. On any average day, Jelpax was the one to take his time. To throw out sarcastic comments while he purposefully force people to wait. But not that day.

Instead of being his usual witty attitude, Jelpax was just being compliant. Accepting of the fact that he was doomed to help Koschei with his homework. And somehow, he almost seemed excited to do it; moving with more energy than Koschei had seen from him in a significant amount of time. In a way, it seemed like it should have been a positive thing, but in reality, it was far from it.

“Are you sure that you’re all right?” he asked again, hoping that his friend would be more honest this time.

He wasn’t. “Yes, I’m fine,” he insisted. Jelpax sat back down beside Koschei and began to flip through his flashcards. “Good, good, good, good, wrong, good, wrong, good—”

“Jelpax, stop.”

“What?” He pulled away when Koschei placed a hand on his shoulder. “You asked me to help you, and I can’t help you if the answers on here are half wrong. No offense.”

“None taken,” Koschei said quickly. “But that’s not what I’m concerned about right now. You’re acting very, very odd, Jel.”

“I’m not acting odd. Why would I be acting odd? This isn’t odd, Koschei. I’m just trying to help you because you asked for it. If you don’t want the help, then fine. Just go. I don’t need to bother with this anyway.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about!”

He groaned and grabbed onto his hair, trying to make sense of Jelpax’s behavior. Koschei couldn’t tell if he was in denial or simply pissed off about something, and he didn’t know how he was meant to find out. So, instead of trying to figure it out, Koschei sighed and gave in (with a backup plan, of course).

“Okay, never mind,” he sighed. “I’m sorry. You can fix those.”

“Thank you.” Jelpax nodded and went back to flipping through the cards.

While he was busy, Koschei whipped out his phone and quickly sent a message to the one person who would know what to do without question.

ME: Hey, Jelpax is acting really weird. Do you know if everything is ok??

The response came much faster than he was expecting, considering they were technically still in the middle of the school day.

DRAX: wait you talked to him?? what the fuck

DRAX: is he w/ u rn???

ME: Yeah, he’s helping me study for my Gallifreyan history exam

DRAX: what the fuck

While part of him wanted to ask what Drax was going on about, Koschei knew that he only had minutes until Jelpax finished going through the flashcards, and so he chose to wait for whatever else he might say.

DRAX: is he mad at me??

ME: He hasn’t mentioned you

DRAX: goddammit

DRAX: i’d come over there but i’m taking an exam + about to fucking fail this class

DRAX: shit gtg pls pls pls tell me if he’s ok i’m so effing stressed rn

ME: [thumbs up]

Koschei barely finished messaging Drax before Jelpax shuffled the deck of flashcards and held one up to get started.

//

“Have you spoken to Millennia yet?”

Rallon shook his head when Vansell slid into the seat beside him. They had mere moments until Professor Borusa arrived, starting their lecture on emotional detachment and subsequently preventing them from engaging in further conversation.

“I tried searching for her during break, but no luck,” he answered. “And it was quite awkward, because Mortimus told me she was looking for me earlier as well, but we never crossed paths. Hopefully I’ll be able to find her later, but it’s fine if not. I sent her a message to meet me outside later.”

“You… sent her a message?” Vansell made a face. “That’s probably the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”

“No, it’s fine. I have a plan.”

“There is literally not one good thing in the universe,” said Magnus, peeking up from a seat behind them, “that has come from someone saying, ‘I have a plan’. In fact, I’m fairly certain that’s a synonym for ‘I’m about to fuck a whole bunch of shit up’.”

“Not when I say it,” Rallon reassured him. He had a faint smile on his face, and Vansell couldn’t tell if it was from infatuation or drugs. “I think that we’re going to be having a very nice conversation at our meeting in the morning. One during which, I may be optimistic to suggest that Millennia may be sitting on my lap.”

Vansell smirked and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, good luck, mate. Hope everything turns out okay.”

“Me too.” He nodded, lowering his voice when Borusa inevitably wandered into the room. “Me too.”

Rallon did his best to stay focused when their professor started speaking, but he was too distracted by his mind—thinking of everything that might happen that evening. Not just the things that might go wrong (to which the list was obviously lengthy), but all the things that could go right. The many things that could lead to him kissing her, holding her, telling her that he’s cared for her for so long.

But he didn’t want to get his hopes up.

Not until he knew that she liked him too.

//

“You know, I didn’t quite believe it at first,” said Ushas, from somewhere behind Drax, “but I think Magnus was right this morning. You do look significantly more homosexual.”

Drax stopped walking when she appeared behind him, biting his lip into a tight line as he slowly turned around to face her. On any other day he probably would have come up with some comeback for her stupid comment, but he wasn’t in the mood then. Not when it’d been almost twenty-four hours since he’d last spoken to his best friend, who appeared to be upset with him for some unknown reasons. And especially not when he’d spent the last three hours questioning someone who appeared to be incapable of answering his phone.

“I’m really not in the mood for this today, Ushas,” he told her, his tone dark.

“Unfortunately, I am.” She smiled annoyingly. “Probably because someone spit on me yesterday. Who was that again? Oh wait. Anyway, it’s not just because of your hat. You’ve got this whole… swagger thing going on. I didn’t realize it until Magnus pointed it out to me, but I’m starting to believe in his whole theory. Not to be a dick, or anything.”

“You were being a dick the moment I told you I’m not in the mood and you continued talking anyway. This—” he gestured to his hat “—is the least of my problems right now. In fact, the style is kind of growing on me. I don’t mean to be self-centered, but I kind of fucking rock neon purple. Now, if you’ll fuck off, I have to— Pax!”

Drax cut himself off and hustled in the opposite direction when he saw his best friend coming out of a nearby classroom. He left Ushas in the dust, ignoring whatever comments she called after him as she left. Nothing mattered to him more than talking to Jelpax, and he was going to do it no matter what ended up happening.

“Hi, hey!” he called. Jelpax glanced back at him but didn’t say anything. Drax matched their strides, slowing down only when they got closer to each other. “Pax. Hi. Why are you ignoring me?”

Keeping with his trend of that day and the day before, Jelpax didn’t answer right away. In fact, it seemed like he was going to ignore Drax completely, until his gaze wandered downward and he noticed something particularly out of the ordinary.

“Are you wearing my shoes?” he asked, his expression more confused than Drax had ever seen it before.

“Uh… yeah?” Drax nodded, attempting to think up the easiest explanation for why. When he couldn’t think of anything, he decided to just go with the simplified truth. “I pissed off Ushas, so she stole all of mine, so then I decided to take some of yours. Sorry. I would’ve asked but you kind of ran off this morning. Which, thanks for that, mate, and thanks for dropping our study session last night. Pretty sure I botched my exam this afternoon, but you know, whatever. I’m sure you had things to do.”

“Drax, what the fuck?” Even though it seemed obvious who was in the wrong, Jelpax flipped on him like he’d pulled out a weapon. “I’m not your personal tutor. Things happen sometimes and it’s not my fault that you couldn’t study on your own.”

“I fucking studied on my own,” he snapped. “Wanting your help isn’t the same as being fucking useless, asshole. And one, thanks for being a dick even though you know why I need help. And two, thanks for assuming I only wanted to spend time with you to study.”

“I’m always a dick, Drax, it’s just not directed at you. And what else would you want to spend time with me for?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” He shrugged over-dramatically and stopped walking, forcing Jelpax to stop in the corridor beside him. “Maybe I just wanted to hang out since you’re my best friend? Is that not allowed anymore? I know I’m fucking clingy, Pax, but if you want space then just tell me. Don’t blow me off.”

“No, it’s not about that. It’s—” Jelpax looked away and shook his head. “You know what? I really don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” Drax smiled sarcastically when his roommate tried to walk away. “You blow me off, you mock my disadvantages, and now you don’t even want to be my friend anymore? What the fuck do you think I did to you yesterday?”

“Nothing. I’m not trying to be an asshole, Drax, I just really can’t talk about this. I can’t be around you right now.”

Though both were lacking their usual awareness, a crowd had practically formed around them—including a couple members of the Deca, some of whom tried to disband the students—watching as they fought loudly about something that neither of them completely understood. Ushas in particular was flipping students off left and right, forcing them to get the hell out of there, while Theta tried to talk them down, and Magnus mostly watched in fascination.

“You can’t be around me?” Despite his attempts to control his own emotions, Drax’s eyes brimmed with tears, and he had to bite his lip to keep it from quivering. “We’ve been friends since we were fucking eight and you never tried to get rid of me once. Not even when you were uncomfortable. Not even when I knew I was pissing you off. Why now? What could I have possibly done to you?”

“Nothing,” Jelpax answered, throwing his hands up dramatically. “You did nothing. I’m just a dick, Drax, and I don’t want you to be so dependent on me.”

“There you go again with the dependency shit! I’m not fucking dependent on you!”

“I mean, you kind of are,” said Ushas, unable to stop herself from interjecting.

Drax whipped around to look at her. “You’re going to fucking interrupt now, yeah? You have no place in this, Ushas, so why don’t you just back the fuck off? And while you’re at it, you can buy me a whole shitload of new hats.” He ripped the one off his head and threw it at her, leaving her shocked and his own hair distraught.

“Hey, I think you need to calm down.”

He yanked away when Magnus reached out for his wrist. “I need to calm down?” he gaped. “He’s the one who suddenly hates me. I don’t see how any of this is my fucking fault.”

“Drax—”

“And you know what? I don’t even need your fucking shoes.” He reached down and tore them off his feet as quickly as he could, leaving himself barefoot, then shoved them into Jelpax’s arms. “I guess I’ll just go throw myself off a cliff or something since I’m not wanted anymore. Oh, and fuck all of you too.” Drax stopped to glare at his audience. “You’re fucking lowlifes. Our problems aren’t your fucking entertainment.”

With one last middle finger to the crowd, Drax pushed through them and took off down the hall—not a single person daring to follow him.

//

Meanwhile, Millennia was sitting in science class, completely unaware of what was happening just a few corridors down. She was meant to be focusing on the lecture, but instead kept glancing down at her phone, rereading the same message over and over until she memorized it, then read it over again.

RALLON: Meet me on the back steps at sundown.

She didn’t know what to expect when she met up with him that night, but she was would be lying if she said she wasn’t excited. Millennia had been watching even the seconds tick down through her classes, willing the time to move faster. Millennia didn’t realize that she was tapping her fingers impatiently until Mortimus poked her in the shoulder, leaning in just subtly enough to not get caught by their professor.

“Hey,” he whispered, “everything okay? You’re acting like something’s going to blow up.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She nodded, keeping her eyes facing forward to lessen suspicion. “It’s just that Rallon sent me a really vague message, and I can’t wait to meet with him to find out what it’s about. I think he might actually tell me that he likes me.”

“Ha, yeah, that’s wishful thinking.”

Millennia frowned. “What do you mean, ‘wishful thinking’? Given what’s happened the last couple days, I think it’s a pretty fair guess.”

“Really? ‘Cause I think you’re overestimating Rallon’s social capabilities right now. The bloke can hardly order lunch, let alone tell a pretty girl he likes her.” Mortimus rolled his eyes when she gave him a look. “Yeah, I called you pretty. Moving on now, please.”

“All right.” She sighed. “I guess I might be expecting too much. But what if I’m not? What if Rallon really is going to tell me that he likes me? I really want to keep my hopes up, Mortimus. Even if today isn’t the day.”

“Okay, fair enough.” Mortimus shrugged. “Just don’t come crying to me when he chickens out.”

“He’s not going to chicken out.” Her tone came out slightly harsher than she intended, causing her to snap at him rather than defend her crush. “I mean, I don’t know what exactly is going to happen, but I really think he’s going to go through with it this time. I do.”

“I guess that’ll be all right then. Hope everything works out for you.”

Millennia smiled before turning her attention back to the lecture. Even though she was slightly afraid of what might happen, she had a good feeling that something great was going to occur, and nothing would be able to break her spirits.

//

Jelpax felt sick to his stomach when Drax didn’t show up for temporal theory a few hours later, and suddenly he understood how his friend must have felt that morning.

He didn’t mean for their argument to blow up into a fight. In fact, he didn’t even mean for his comments to be so hurtful—especially when he said he didn’t want to talk to Drax. It wasn’t like it was his fault, or anyone’s fault, really. It wasn’t something that he could explain, just a sudden need for distance. He was hoping that it could just blow over, but unfortunately Drax had to go and be a drama queen, so—

No.

That wasn’t fair.

If anything, it was Jelpax’s fault for not thinking about what would happen. He knew Drax better than anyone, and he should have known that he would come after him without hesitation. Despite knowing that it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of Drax, Jelpax decided to change course on his way to dinner and went back to the dormitory instead.

He could hear his best friend inside before he even opened the door, and his heart dropped even further. When he first walked into the room, Drax was pacing back and forth across the room, chewing on his thumbnail as he tried to blink away the tears that already slid down his cheeks. He stopped pacing when he saw Jelpax in the doorway, then walked straight over to him and nearly tackled him with a hug.

For once, the touch wasn’t even a tiny bit unwanted. Instead of returning his gesture awkwardly, or uncomfortably ending it prematurely, Jelpax slid his own arms up Drax’s back and pulled him in tighter; one hand reaching up to stroke his hair when he rested his head against Jelpax’s shoulder.

“I’m really sorry I yelled at you,” Drax mumbled, his voice becoming choked with emotion. “I was being really selfish. It’s okay if you don’t want to help me anymore.”

“Drax, it’s not about that.” He took a deep breath. “You mean a lot to me, and I’m really sorry that I didn’t come last night. I got sidetracked and I totally forgot about what we were planning to do. It really has nothing to do with you. It’s not your fault.”

He nodded and pulled away, wiping his eyes off with his sleeves as soon as his hands were free. Despite getting the space that he almost always wanted, Jelpax wasn’t quite ready to let Drax go, and placed both hands on his shoulders while he was looking away, their eyes meeting once Drax lowered his own arms.

“Are you going to be all right?” he asked. “No hard feelings?”

“Of course not,” said Drax, nodding as he bit his lip. “You mean everything to me, Pax.”

Jelpax hesitated for too long before he responded, sliding his arms up over Drax’s shoulders to pull him back in for one more embrace. Drax seemed mildly confused by the gesture, but found it comforting and chose not to say anything about it, staying silent even when Jelpax finally whispered something back.

“You mean a hell of a lot to me too, darling.”

//

Millennia wasted no time running out of the building as soon as the time could qualify as sundown.

She would be lying if she said that she spent most of her day doing anything other than daydreaming about what might happen—every inch of her aching to know what Rallon wanted to tell her. What he was planning to show her once she finally arrived that evening. Of course, she was hoping more than anything that he was going to do what she thought he was going to do, but she had no way to prove it. They hadn’t even spoken in over a day, meaning she had no actual evidence to point in one direction or the other.

When she made it to the back entrance, Millennia ripped open the door as quickly as she could and hustled onto the stairs. She froze and stopped walking as soon as she laid eyes on the beautiful sight in front of her, a hand flying up over her mouth as she gazed upon the gorgeous scene.

“Oh, my god,” she said quietly.

Rallon spun around when she spoke, nearly dropping the two cables he held in either hand. “Uh, hi.” He tried to wave awkwardly, but just got himself tangled in the cord. His white button-up shirt got wrinkled as he struggled, being almost instantly ripped from his black pants. “Oops. Sorry. I wasn’t expecting you here so soon. In theory, this was supposed to be a lot more romantic and a lot less embarrassing.”

“It’s okay.” Millennia giggled softly, slowly walking down the steps with an unmovable smile upon her face. “Are those fairy lights?”

“Oh, yeah.” Awkwardly, Rallon pushed the two ends of the cord together, causing streams of light to sparkle around the nearest two trees. “It’s nothing that fancy, really. I just thought I’d try to make this look nicer or something, so it would be a bit more fun when… when I tell you what I have to tell you.”

Millennia swallowed hard. She stopped just a few steps from the bottom, allowing Rallon space to move closer to her before eventually stopping a couple of feet away from the steps. He opened and closed his mouth several times, as if trying to figure out how to say the right words. After failing multiple times, Rallon gave up on speaking from a distance, and walked right up to Millennia. She moved forwards to meet him as well, taking his hands when he held them out upon reaching the bottom.

“There’s something I need to tell you that I probably should have told you a very long time ago,” he said, gripping onto her hands tightly. “You’ve been my best friend for as long as I can remember, Millennia, and there’s nothing I can ever say that’ll properly convey how thankful I am for that. You mean so much to me, and I’d be lying if I said I could actually picture myself living without you.”

She smiled and glanced down at her shoes, before looking back up to meet his light brown eyes. “I can’t imagine living without you either, Rallon.”

“So, on that note, I think it’s about time that I tell you it goes a lot deeper than that. You’re not just a really good friend to me, and I don’t think that you ever have been. Well, maybe when we were really small and didn’t really know anything about romance yet but, like, since sometime after that.”

“Yeah. Something romantic happened after we hit puberty, and for some reason you’re unable to tell me what that is.”

“Sorry.” He laughed and shook his head, not losing his grip on her hands. “You know me. I’ve never been too great with words. Which is a tad bit ironic, considering I’m meant to be a lawyer someday.”

“Rallon.” She nodded her head slightly, as if to gesture for him to go on.

“Right.” Rallon took a deep breath and wet his lips. “I don’t think I’ve ever cared for anyone as much as I care for you. And I don’t think I’ll ever care for anyone this much again. You mean the entire universe to me, Millennia Brightshore, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. You’re the most important part of my life, more than anything, and—”

Before he could continue with his possibly endless tangent, Millennia leaned up on her toes and kissed him.

Although he had much more to say, Rallon thought it was for the best that Millennia cut him off. Not because his words weren’t well thought out (they weren’t), or because he didn’t know a clear ending point in his babble (he didn’t), but because that way, he got to kiss her. Kiss her. He, Rallon, was kissing her, the most beautiful woman in the entire universe.

Millennia slid her hands up to the back of his head, taking control of the simple kiss turned full-on snog. Rather than copying her motions awkwardly, Rallon kept his own arms around her waist, their lips moving in perfect harmony as they finally made it official. The thing that should have happened far too long ago.

The thing that Vansell had so annoyingly come to refer to as “Rallennia”.

After what felt like the perfect eternity, Millennia pulled away, her eyes still locked on Rallon’s when they broke the distance. She glanced across his face, searching for any kind of reaction, but his expression was nothing more than completely stunned. Clearly, of all the ways he’d been expecting that afternoon to go, Millennia cutting him off with a kiss was not one of them.

He stammered for several seconds before he managed to get a word out, his voice still shaking from the sheer adrenaline he acquired while trying to process everything that was happening.

“So that was, uh, pretty much the gist of it,” said Rallon, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

Millennia smirked. “I figured that’s what you were trying to get to. Thought you might need some help.”

“I—I suppose I did. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

For a split second, Rallon thought about stopping. But then, before he even had a chance to process what he was thinking, he opened his mouth again and blurted out the five words that he’d wanted to say for her for so long.

“I really, really like you,” he spilled out. “I like you so much and I’ve wanted to tell you that for so many years now.”

She smiled wider than he’d ever seen before. “I really, really like you too, Rallon. And likewise, on the time thing. I guess we’ve really been missing out on something here, yeah?”

“Absolutely.” Rallon nodded. “You—You’re perfect, Millennia. And I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but I’ve always wanted to say that too. If that’s okay?”

“Of course, it’s okay.”

Before he could babble about anything else, Millennia reached forwards to kiss him again, sealing the deal on what might just be the greatest relationship Gallifrey had ever known.

//

If there was one thing that Rallon accurately predicted about what would happen with him and Millennia, it was that at the Deca’s weekly meeting that morning, she was, in fact, sitting on his lap. In fact, she had her arms wrapped around his neck, holding onto him in a way he’d only imagined in his dreams. Surprisingly, no one else was surprised when they walked into the room, simply nodding at the new couple and heading off to their seats. The only exception being Vansell, who stopped to nod at them.

“That why you got back so late last night?” he asked, his gaze directed at Rallon.

He shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“Fair enough. Glad we’ve finally gotten past the beginning awkward phase. Please don’t find something new to rant to me about.”

With that, Vansell too headed off to his own seat, slinging his legs onto the desk in front of him while they all waited for Ushas to come into the room. Before her, however, Drax walked in—his bare feet nearly silent against the hardwood floor. He glared back at his friends when the half-filled room stared at him, shaking his head slowly.

“You can thank Ushas for this,” he said darkly. “She stole my fucking trainers.”

Jelpax popped up behind him. “And every other pair too.”

“Oh, and every other pair too.”

“That’s not what I was going to ask about,” Magnus commented, narrowing his eyes. “Are your toenails painted sheer purple?”

“Yeah.” Drax nodded. Though he was waiting for Magnus to come back with a demeaning comment, he didn’t supply one.

“All right, then.”

After he spoke, Drax and Jelpax went to their own seats as well, leaving the group missing only two students—both of whom came wandering into the room only a few seconds later, one of them quite literally dragging the other behind her.

“I can walk by myself, you know,” Mortimus snapped, yanking away from Ushas as soon as they made it through the doorway. “I might be a bit dazed but I’m not a complete idiot.”

“You’re a dazed idiot,” said Ushas, rolling her eyes. She allowed him to walk back to his own seat while she tossed her bag down by Borusa’s desk. She glanced around the room for a second, not even stopping when she saw Rallon and Millennia, then sighed and set her gaze forward. “In case any of you are wondering what happens when you take too many painkillers, I might point you in the direction of our friend here.”

She gestured to Mortimus, who was sitting in one of the seats in the dark back corner, his head ducked beneath his arms. He looked up to glare at her when she spoke, then dropped his head back down, burrowing further into his sleeves as if trying to block out all his senses.

“Wait, why are you taking so many painkillers?” asked Theta, turning around in his seat. He poked his friend when he didn’t respond. “Mortimus?”

He glanced up and narrowed his eyes. “Because I was in pain, you idiot. Why else would I be taking painkillers?”

“I don’t know. I just thought it was weird that you like, overdosed on them or whatever.”

“I—” Mortimus seemed thrown by the accusation and leaned back in his seat. “I didn’t overdose, I just didn’t pay attention to how many I was taking. It’s not that bad. I just have a bit of a headache now. Which, ironically, I’d normally take painkillers for.”

Magnus snorted. “I think what he’s saying is that he’s had to take painkillers because he actually annoyed himself into a headache. It’s not too surprisingly, honestly, since I’ve seen him do it to plenty of other people, I just never quite expected him to do it to himself.”

“Why do you guys have to make fun of me all the time?” he groaned. “Just once can we accept that I’m a big mess of a person and not make a huge deal out of it? Because it’s really not that much of a conversation piece.”

“Right,” said Rallon cheerfully, “but you know what is much of a conversation piece? Me and Millennia. You know, since we’re a proper couple now. Like, for real. I mean, I can kiss her anytime I want.”

“Please don’t.” Magnus gave him a look. “You two are a great couple and all, I’m sure we can agree, but I don’t think we need to see you engaging in PDA all the time just because you’re together.”

“No, we know that.” Millennia smiled and waved a hand around dismissively. “You don’t even have to worry. This is as much touching as we’ll do on a regular basis. We know better than to make everyone watch us fawn over each other.”

“Yeah, we’re mature about that. Not like Theta and Koschei, the two lovebirds over there.”

Koschei snapped his head up. “Don’t you dare start with the shipping again,” he snapped. “We’ve talked about this.”

“Why yes,” said Vansell, nodding slowly, “yes we have. And yet, I don’t feel like I’m going to stop shipping it anytime soon. What about you, Rallon?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “No, I think I’m going to keep rooting for it. I feel as if we’re rather close to making something happen.”

“Nothing is going to happen,” Theta assured them, rolling his eyes. “Right, Kos?”

“Yeah, obviously.” Koschei nodded. “We’re just friends.”

“Right, yeah.”

An awkward silence fell over the room, lasting for several seconds before Ushas finally decided to break it. “So,” she said, “does anyone else have anything to share with us before I get started with this week’s business? Because it seems like an awful lot has happened in the last few days. Drax, Jelpax, you want to tell us what all that stuff was about yesterday?”

Drax, who was chewing on his thumbnail, shook his head. In the seat beside him, Jelpax glanced over at him before choosing to speak himself.

“Nah, we’re all right,” he replied. “I don’t think either of us are particularly interested in sharing what went down but do know that we’re not mad at each other. Or anyone else. And Koschei, I apologize for being such a dick to you yesterday. It had nothing to do with you.”

“It was me,” said Drax, raising his spare hand lamely, as if to make a point. “I was the one who pissed him off.”

“No, I told you it wasn’t about that.” Jelpax seemed almost concerned when he turned to look at his roommate, his brow furrowing. “I’m not mad at you, Drax.”

“Okay.”

After another short silence, Magnus raised a hand, but didn’t wait for Ushas to call on him before proceeding with his words.

“So, I actually have a question for Drax,” he began, his face twisted in curiosity, “are you absolutely sure that you’re not gay?”

“What?” Drax whipped around, the most utterly confused look in his eyes. “Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Magnus gestured a hand towards Drax’s current appearance. “Neon blue hat, shiny purple toenails… there is nobody in this entire Academy who could look at you and think, ‘Huh, that bloke’s probably straight.’”

“Well, maybe they could if you’d stop making comments about me being gay all the time. Not that rumors spread like wildfire or anything, but they kind of spread like wildfire, so it’d be nice if you could stop telling everyone about this for a bit. And same goes for you, Ushas, now that I know what you were talking about yesterday.”

“Hey, I was just going with what he said,” Ushas insisted, her tone far more casual than Drax would have liked. “But if it really makes you that uncomfortable, then I guess I’ll stop. I hate being the person who makes others feel less important.”

Magnus burst out laughing. “Yeah, because you hate making people feel small.”

Ushas opened her mouth to come up with a comeback, but stopped short when Drax interrupted again, one finger stuck up in the air as if to make a point.

“Sorry to cut off this beautiful banter,” he said, “but can I ask you a question, Magnus? Never mind, I’m going to do it anyway. Do you fancy me?”

What?” The expression on Magnus’ face was more stunned than he’d ever been before. “Where in the fuck did that come from?”

“Well, I was trying to figure out why you’re so obsessed with finding out whether I’m gay. And after extensive thought—or, ten seconds or so—I’ve only been able to think of one thing. You’re gay, and you fancy me. Is that why you’re always being such a dick?”

“No, I’m a dick because I was born that way. And I’m not gay. Even if I was, I wouldn’t like you. No offense, but you’re kind of a hot mess.”

“But hot nonetheless.”

Magnus opened his mouth to respond with a brilliant comeback but cut himself short when he heard Theta speak up from the back of the room. He was peering around his own desk, trying desperately to get a better look at the friend sitting in front of him.

“Did something happen to your jaw?” he asked, his voice filled with concern.

“What?” Koschei reached up to touch it instinctively. “Oh, no. That’s nothing. I just… dropped a desk on my face.”

“You—You dropped a desk on your face?” Mortimus made a face. “I lie better than that, right?”

“Oh, yeah.” Ushas nodded. “You might be thick as a doorknob, but you’re a bloody brilliant liar. Koschei, on the other hand, may have been crippled from the desk he apparently dropped on his face.”

“Stupid jokes and stupid friends aside,” said Theta, rolling his eyes at the rest of the group, “what happened? Are you all right?”

“No, yeah, I’m fine.” Koschei shrugged it off, attempting to wave his hand to dismiss the issue. It didn’t work. “Okay, I had a run-in with Torvic last night. But it’s not a big deal. I mean, seriously. You should see the other guy, mate.”

“I saw him this morning and he was absolutely fine. But nice job trying to save your reputation or whatever, Kos. Though, you do know that I’m your best friend, yeah? I know your track record. Why didn’t you tell me what happened?”

“Because I didn’t want to worry you over practically nothing. Now, can we get back to other people’s lives again? How are things going with you and Rallon so far, Millennia?”

Even though it was quite obvious that something there still needed to be addressed, Millennia was far too excited about her new relationship, and was more than ready to gush over her new boyfriend—her bright eyes lighting up when she started to talk about everything they’d done so far.

Which, of course, wasn’t much more than spending an evening outside together, and then walking to the meeting in the morning. But somehow, she felt like she could talk about his hugs forever, and she went on and on until Rallon joined in, gushing about her rather than himself. Then they droned on and on until someone finally made them stop talking.

“I’m too gay for this,” said Drax. Once everyone turned to look at him, he showed off his bored expression; his chin propped up on his palm. He glanced around awkwardly, then added an extra comment. “And I’m not even gay. This is just way too much.”

Mortimus nodded in agreement. “If this is what I sound like every time I get a new date, then I’m extremely sorry. I’m also not gay—well, not totally gay—but this is too much straight for me. Please stop talking about each other. The romance is hitting a point where it’s stopped being cute and started being downright obnoxious.”

“Sorry.” Rallon shrugged. “No offense to any of you singles, but I think you might just be jealous of our perfect relationship.”

“Perfect?” Jelpax snorted and shook his head. “You haven’t even been going out for one day. I think it’s a bit too early to judge whether this relationship is actually successful or not, Rallon.”

“I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to be successful,” said Millennia, staring lovingly at Rallon. “And it’s not just because we’re still in that beginning phase that people always talk about. No, it’s because we’re perfect together and I think it would take a lot more than a nuclear bomb to break us apart.”

“On the contrary,” Vansell interjected, “I believe a nuclear bomb would do more than enough to break you apart. In fact, it wouldn’t only tear you two individuals apart, but your bodies as well.”

“You know,” Koschei mused, “you’re kind of a buzzkill sometimes.”

He took a deep breath, the expression on his face clearly dramatized for effect. “And you’re Captain Obvious sometimes, but you don’t see me pointing that out.”

“Well, why would you? It’s obvious.”

“I don’t appreciate your mocking tone,” said Vansell, narrowing his eyes.

“And I don’t appreciate you being a dickwad, but you don’t see me complaining.” Koschei shrugged, an amused grin on his face.

While the two of them were clearly occupied with their miniature argument, Ushas was not the least bit amused and cleared her throat to get their attention. When they turned to her, she gave them a look with one brow raised, as if to ask if they were acting like children.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your pointless little argument,” she said, her tone only slightly condescending, “but we do have an actual meeting to get to.”

“Do we?” Magnus raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms as he leaned back in his seat. “I was under the impression that these things are just an excuse to get us together once a week.”

“What? No.” Ushas scoffed and rolled her eyes. “The point of these meetings is to keep us all up to date on current events so that we may retain our places as the smartest and most well-rounded students in our year. Someday, in the entire Academy. Well, assuming you slackers—you know who you are—pick it up so people don’t start thinking we’re a group of idiots.”

“Why would anyone think we’re a group of idiots?” asked Drax.

“Because you and Theta have close to the lowest grades of anyone in our entire Academy. Don’t make me roll my eyes again.”

“When have you ever stopped?”

Millennia sighed happily from her seat on Rallon’s lap. When she first met her friends, the constant bickering was bothersome to her—something she thought was a sign that they’d never be friends for long. But as time went on, she came to love their ridiculous arguments. They didn’t wedge a distance between them, but instead brought the friends only closer, bonding even more as they learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Any outsider would say that the Deca was incredibly dysfunctional, and Millennia would be lying if she said she hadn’t thought of it that way herself sometimes. There were days when her friends shouted at each other worse than anyone she knew, days when they were ready to tear each other apart of the most insignificant of things, and days when they were just the perfect friends; helping each other through everything even when they knew it was difficult.

The Deca had more ups and downs than any group of friends Millennia had known in her life so far. They were, as Magnus had so lovingly described Drax earlier, an absolute hot mess. They fought, they laughed, they got into more trouble than anyone else; but more importantly than anything, they loved each other more than the universe, and to her experience, there wasn’t a thing they wouldn’t do to help each other. If they fell, they all fell together.

“This is the stupidest conversation we’ve had in decades,” said Vansell, rolling his eyes for the umpteenth time that morning. “Is it even really necessary to keep having these meetings?”

“Yes,” Millennia answered quickly, her eyes darting over to him. “Absolutely. These bring us together more than anything. Without them, we might fall apart.”

The reason she said it so fast was because she feared it may one day come true. Already there were times when she went entire weeks or more without even speaking to certain members from the Deca, and she hated that she wasn’t closer to them. She hated that it was so easy to lose touch with someone who was so close, and who she still considered to be one of her closest friends. So, she pushed for the meetings to stay weekly, even if they had become a bit pointless over the years.

“That’ll never happen, you know,” Koschei commented. He glanced around the room when no one responded, then shrugged. “I mean it. We’re far too attached to each other now.”

“He has a point.” Theta nodded and pointed at his roommate. “I mean, we’re rather close now, like it or not.”

Magnus groaned. “I’ll choose not, but unfortunately, I don’t think saying that will shake you anytime soon.”

“Nothing is going to shake us,” said Rallon. He smiled and hugged Millennia tighter, looking up to admire her beauty. “We have our rough spots, but like Koschei said, we’re too close to lose this now.”

“Unless one of you dies.” Ushas crossed her arms, tapping her foot impatiently. Her lips formed a tight line, her brown eyes narrowed just enough to be a cause for concern. “I’m implying that to be by my hand, by the way. Some of you might think that these meetings are completely pointless, but I do still have a reason for them, you know. So, if we could get back to business now…?”

“Well, get on with it then.” Drax—who, like always, finally propped his feet up on Jelpax’s chair—nodded towards her. “I think I speak for all of us when I say I’d like to get this over with.”

Millennia shook her head. “No. I think I’d like to stay awhile.”

She didn’t just say it because she wanted to continue sitting with Rallon, staring longingly at his adorable face. She didn’t just say it because she wanted to listen to whatever Ushas had to say. She said it because she wanted to spend more time with the people who meant the more to her than anything else in the universe. Because they, without a doubt, were the most important thing in her entire life.

And no matter what happened as they grew and changed, the Deca was the one thing they could never, ever replace.